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Behind the Camera - The Night of the Hunter
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Behind the Camera on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

It was Robert Mitchum who originally suggested to Laughton that they film The Night of the Hunter in authentic Appalachian locations but the director couldn't afford the budget to do on-location shooting. Besides, he wanted to create the film's unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathe, Republic studios and the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Terry and Denis Sanders were dispatched to Ohio to film some second-unit material along the Ohio River.

Robert Mitchum never had a single regret from the minute he agreed to do The Night of the Hunter; he frequently stated over the years it was his best performance and Laughton was his best director. The admiration was mutual. Laughton, who thought Mitchum was "one of the best actors in the world," wrote in Esquire of the private man he knew to be different than the public image: "All this tough talk is a blind, you know. He's a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He's a tender man and a very great gentleman. You know, he's really terribly shy." Laughton was usually ill at ease with very macho men yet very comfortable with his star. In turn, Mitchum gave a performance that is rather uncharacteristically delicate and seductive, so much so that Lillian Gish feared the director and actor might be undercutting the character's evil. Laughton explained to her, half joking, that he didn't want to ruin Mitchum's future career by pushing him to play total evil, although the touches of humor in the character actually serve to play up the preacher's essentially ludicrous and haywire psychology. And Mitchum's borderline buffoonery makes the children's escape and eventual triumph over him more plausible. Mitchum's performance was seen as a change of pace for the actor, but notoriously unwilling or unable to accept praise for his work, he countered, "I haven't changed anything but my underwear."

With Mitchum on board, the main parts to cast were the children, their mother, and Rachel, the fairy godmother character. For the latter, Laughton wanted and got Gish, one of the most enduring legends of the screen. A combination of delicate grace and steely resolve, Gish had an almost Victorian purity that was perfect for the part. Casting her also confirmed the connection to one of Laughton's main inspirations for the film, D.W. Griffith, in whose pictures Gish had so often starred as a young actress during the silent era. (Laughton repeatedly ran and studied Griffith's films preparing for this picture.) At their initial meeting, Gish asked him why he wanted her for the part; he replied, "When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again."

Shelley Winters started her film career being stereotyped as the blonde "babe," but her casting against type as the mousy factory girl in A Place in the Sun (1951) - and the resulting Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she received - convinced directors she had much more to offer. She had occasionally studied acting with Laughton and to Mitchum's considerable dismay, he cast her as the young widowed mother who falls under Harry's spell. "Shelley defeats herself a lot," Mitchum said years later on the Today show, commenting on her reputation for throwing tantrums on movie sets. "She's so self-conscious and so insecure that she visits it on other people, which is unfortunate for her....Shelley got what she deserved, lying there dead at the bottom of the river." Nevertheless, Mitchum was so trustful of Laughton that he put aside his differences with his co-star. As for Winters, she stated that this was "the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave."

Mitchum's faith in the project also helped skirt another potential production problem: Laughton apparently loathed the child actors. Mitchum tried explaining to Billy Chapin (in the key role of John) that he needed to better understand his character and his relationship to the preacher. Chapin, who had a reputation for brattiness, replied, "That's probably why I just won the New York Critics Circle prize." Laughton bellowed, "Get that child away from me!" and from then on Mitchum patiently directed the boy in their scenes together.

According to writer Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Mitchum's "devotion to Laughton and the project had begun to fade by the final week of the thirty-six-day shoot. [Producer Paul] Gregory: "Laughton had a keen thing for Mitchum, and Mitchum said all this sh*t about how he loved Charles, but he was on drugs, drunk, and what have you, and there were times when Charles couldn't get him in front of the camera. He put us through a lot of hell on that. The picture went two hundred thousand dollars over budget." To Gregory, Mitchum at times seemed uncomfortably like the character he was playing. "He was a charmer. An evil son of a bitch with a lot of charm. Mitch sort of scared me, to tell you the truth. I was always on guard. He was often in a state, and you never knew what he would do next. He would be drunk or in a fight with this flunky he kept around, and kicking him all over the place. I came from the world of the theatre and I had never seen anyone quite like this."

Despite these occasional difficulties (Mitchum's drinking, Winters' tantrums, the children's lack of experience), the working atmosphere on The Night of the Hunter was, by all accounts, not only harmonious but inspiring. Laughton had chosen famed cinematographer Stanley Cortez to shoot the picture. Known for his advanced procedures in capturing images and mood, Cortez was happy to explain to the director, every Sunday for six weeks before shooting began, all the technical aspects of the trade. But soon, he said, the student became the instructor, "not in terms of knowing about the camera but in terms of what he had to say, his ideas for the camera." The two spurred each other on with a collaborative and often unconventional approach. Cortez often took his pictorial inspiration from music, and he suggested the valse triste to be played on the soundtrack for the scene when Harry murders Willa. He later said that apart from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the most exciting experience he had working in cinema was on The Night of the Hunter and that Laughton was the only other director besides Welles who understood his approach to capturing light on film.

In the Lee Server biography of Robert Mitchum, the author described the creation of the famous underwater sequence with Willa's body at the bottom of the river: "To reveal the dead Shelley Winters seated in her car underwater, Laughton desired a bright, ethereal image, her hair floating like seaweed, and a slow, unbroken camera movement rising to the water's surface. Cortez went all over town trying to find a water tank that his lights could penetrate sufficiently, settling on the one owned by Republic Pictures. A platform suspended by a crane held eight blinding Titan sun arcs. Wind machines had to be carefully employed to blow the hair and weeds without making waves. The camera operator and an assistant worked underwater in scuba gear. The amazingly lifelike dead Shelley Winters was a wax dummy."

"Every day the marvelous team that made that picture would meet and discuss the next day's work," Cortez said. "It was designed from day to day in fullest detail, so that the details seemed fresh, fresher than if we had done the whole thing in advance." Gish echoed the sentiment: "I have to go back as far as Griffith to find a set so infused with purpose and harmony....There was never a moment's doubt as to what we were doing or how we were doing it. To please Charles Laughton was our aim. We believed in him and respected him. Totally."

It's all the more heartbreaking, then, that the picture failed so miserably at the box office and that Laughton was, as many people observed, destroyed by its poor reception. Gregory said the main problem during production was United Artists executive Bert Allenberg, who cast Mitchum in the higher-profile, big-budget picture Not as a Stranger (1955), knowing full well director Stanley Kramer planned to start shooting before The Night of the Hunter was finished. The action disrupted the filming, forcing Mitchum to return to Laughton's set on Sundays while they shot around him the rest of the week. Those involved have also said United Artists disrupted the film's chances at the box office by burying it while heavily promoting Not as a Stranger.

by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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