The Night of the Hunter
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In his own words, director Charles Laughton described The Night of the Hunter (1955) as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale." Based on a popular novel by David Grubb, the film takes place in West Virginia during the Depression and follows a homicidal preacher as he stalks two children, a brother and sister, across the rural landscape. The reason for his pursuit is $10,000 in cash and it's stuffed inside a doll the little girl is carrying.
Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay but the famous author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had a severe drinking problem (he died the same year) and the screenplay he delivered was a mammoth script by Hollywood standards that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Although Agee biographer Lawrence Bergman maintained that Laughton had to rewrite most of screenplay, the discovery of Agee's first draft of the script in 2004 proved that it reflected Laughton's final release version, almost scene for scene.
Laughton had a much more positive working experience with his second-unit directors, Terry and Denis Sanders, whose documentary film, A Time Out of War (1954) won an Oscar®, and cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The latter once remarked: "Apart from The Magnificent Ambersons, the most exciting experience I have had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter...every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can't be described. Of the directors I've worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton."
The casting was also exceptional and Laughton coaxed excellent performances from Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. However, he developed an aversion to the two child actors and when he overheard the little boy, Billy Chapin, brag about winning the New York Critics' Circle Prize for a recent play, Laughton roared, "Get that child away from me." After that, the two children took their direction mostly from Mitchum. The only other problem Laughton encountered was having to juggle his shooting schedule so that Mitchum could begin work on his next film, Not as a Stranger (1955).
Ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release, except by a handful of critics, The Night of the Hunter had to wait several decades before it took its rightful place alongside other revered works of the American cinema like John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). It was the sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton and he took the film's commercial failure very hard, abandoning any future plans to direct another film.
Yet, The Night of the Hunter is anything but a failure and is chock full of riches: Robert Mitchum creates a chilling portrait of evil in one of his finest performances (and one of his personal favorites); the rock-steady presence of Lillian Gish is both a homage and a direct link to the films of D.W. Griffith, the film pioneer Laughton pays tribute to with this movie; the shimmering beauty of Stanley Cortez's cinematography also recalls the shadows and lighting of other silent era classics by Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg, and the music score by Walter Schumann is unusually evocative, mixing hymns, children's songs, and orchestral effects.
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Screenplay: James Agee, Charles Laughton (uncredited), based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Robert Golden
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown
Music: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Rev. Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon).
BW-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford