Cast & Crew
During the Depression of the 1930s, Preacher Harry Powell, a murderous, self-proclaimed "man of the cloth," travels throughout rural West Virginia believing that he is doing the Lord's work by killing rich widows. One evening, Preacher is apprehended by the police for stealing a car and is sentenced to thirty days at Moundsville Penitentiary. Soon after, in nearby Cresap's Landing, Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two employees. Ben races home, where his son John and young daughter Pearl are playing with her doll, Miss Jenny. Ben, who is wounded, looks for a place to stash the stolen $10,000, and after hiding it, makes John and Pearl swear never to reveal where the money is. John then watches with horror as several policemen drag Ben away. Ben winds up in a cell with Preacher, who harangues him to reveal the money's location. Ben scornfully dismisses Preacher, who nonethless thanks the Lord for leading him to a "widow in the making." After Ben is hanged, John watches over Pearl and ignores the taunts of other children, while Willa takes a job at Walt and Icey Spoon's ice cream parlor. One day, John visits his only friend, Uncle Birdie Steptoe, a well-meaning drunkard who lives in a wharfboat on the river. Birdie promises to repair Ben's skiff, but John's happiness is tempered when Birdie reveals that he met a stranger claiming to have known Ben. When John then goes to the ice cream parlor, he finds Willa, Pearl, Icey and Walt being charmed by the smooth-talking, gospel-quoting Preacher. Preacher tells them that he worked at the penitentiary, but John remains suspicious. When Preacher spots John eyeing the tattoos of the word "LOVE" on his right hand and "HATE" on his left hand, he wins over Icey completely by dramatically telling the story of "right hand-left hand," and how love triumphs over hate in the Bible. Icey insists that Preacher attend the town picnic the following Sunday, then begins to pressure Willa to make herself attractive to the handsome stranger. At the picnic, Willa confesses to Icey her fear that Preacher is after Ben's stolen money, and at Icey's prompting, asks Preacher if Ben told him about the loot. After Preacher claims that Ben told him he had thrown it into the river, a relieved Willa asserts that she now feels clean. Later, when John goes home one night, he is confronted by Preacher, who reveals that he and Willa are to be married the next day. John replies that Preacher will never be his dad, then inadvertantly blurts out that he will "never tell." Preacher realizes that John knows where the money is hidden but, stating that they have a long time to share their secrets, allows the boy to run off. On Willa and Preacher's wedding night, Willa is deeply ashamed when Preacher roars at her that he will not be "pawing" her as the business of their marriage is to tend the children she already has, not to beget more. Later, Willa, who desperately wants to please Preacher, leads a revival meeting with him and renounces her former sinful life. One night, Pearl is playing outside with the stolen money, which Ben had hidden in Miss Jenny, when John finds her and stuffs the bills back into the doll, just as Preacher comes to call them in. After Preacher reprimands John for telling Willa that he has been asking him about the money, Willa scolds John for lying, as she believes that Preacher is innocent. Soon after, however, Preacher locks John in his bedroom while Willa is out, and takes Pearl to the parlor to question her. As Willa is coming home, she overhears Preacher threaten to tear off the little girl's arm if she does not reveal the money's hiding place. That night, as Willa lies in bed, she realizes that Preacher always knew that Ben did not throw the money away, and that John knows where it is hidden. Still unable to face the truth, Willa states that Preacher married her to save her soul, and lies passively as he slits her throat with his switchblade. The next morning, Preacher tearfully tells Walt and Icey that Willa has run away. While the Spoons are comforting Preacher, Uncle Birdie discovers Willa's body, trapped in her old model-T car, in the river. Afraid that he will be blamed for the murder, Uncle Birdie returns to his boat and gets drunk. Later that day, John and Pearl are about to be apprehended by Preacher as they hide in the cellar when Icey suddenly arrives. The children reluctantly emerge at Icey's bidding, and after Icey departs, John tells Preacher, who is badgering Pearl, that the money is buried in the cellar. Preacher forces the children to accompany him, but John succeeds in outwitting him and escapes outside with Pearl. While Preacher is attempting to break open the cellar door, John runs to Uncle Birdie for help, but finds him passed out. John then puts Pearl into Ben's skiff and barely manages to push the little boat into the river before Preacher can catch them. Time passes as the children, relentlessly pursued by Preacher, float down the river. One morning, the sleeping children are awoken by Rachel Cooper, an elderly farmer who takes in orphaned and illegitimate children. The pragmatic but compassionate and religious Rachel currently cares for Ruby, Mary and Clary, and quickly settles John and Pearl in with her brood. One night, Ruby goes to town, supposedly for a sewing lesson, but in reality to meet boys. She is approached by Preacher, who questions her about John and Pearl. Although Ruby becomes enamored of Preacher, he leaves upon obtaining the information he seeks, and when she returns home, Ruby confesses her actions to Rachel. Rachel forgives the confused adolescent but remains worried about Preacher, who shows up the next day, claiming to be John and Pearl's father. When John declares that Preacher is not his dad, Rachel realizes that Preacher is a fraud and chases him away with a shotgun. As he retreats, Preacher screams that he will be back that night, prompting Rachel to hold vigil with her gun. Preacher sits in the front yard, waiting, and when Rachel is distracted by Ruby, he slips into the house. When Preacher suddenly appears before her, Rachel shoots and wounds him, and he runs into the barn. Kept company by John, Rachel then waits through the night, watching the barn, until the state troopers arrive in the morning. As the men arrest Preacher, John, overcome by memories of Ben's arrest, runs to the prone Preacher and hits him with Miss Jenny. When money pours from the burst doll, John, unable to bear the strain any longer, cries out for his father to take the money back. Later, John, incapable of looking at Preacher, is unable to identify him at his trial for Willa's murder. After the trial, an irate Walt and Icey lead a mob to lynch Preacher, but he is snuck out the back by the police, who are assured by Bart the hangman that it will be a pleasure to carry out his duties. Later, on Christmas day, the girls give Rachel potholders, while John shyly presents her with an apple wrapped in a doily. Rachel gives John a pocket watch, and after the happy boy goes upstairs, warmly states that children continue to abide and endure.
Sally Jane Bruce
Mary Ellen Clemons
Kay La Velle
Joe La Bella
The Essentials - The Night of the Hunter
In the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s in the rural South, Ben Harper has committed murder while robbing a bank to get enough money to keep his family from being hungry and homeless. Awaiting hanging, Harper shares a cell with Harry Powell, a deranged, self-appointed preacher with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles. Harry, temporarily in the pen for car theft, tries to get Harper to tell him where he hid the cash, but all he learns is the location of Harper's family. When he's released from jail, Harry goes to the town and seduces Harper's widow, Willa, into marriage, despite the suspicions of her young son, John. Although John's little sister Pearl also adores and trusts the preacher, John reminds her they swore to their father never to reveal the hiding place of the stolen money. The Reverend Powell soon reveals his true intentions and begins tormenting the kids in an effort to learn their secret. When the nave Willa discovers her husband threatening John and Pearl, Harry kills her and dumps her body in the river. The children escape with the money hidden in Pearl's doll, and Harry takes off after them.
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
S creenplay: 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), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper), Peter Graves (Ben Harper), Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon).
Why THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is Essential
A simple recount of the story of The Night of the Hunter cannot do justice to this unique film, often considered one of the most extraordinary contributions to American cinema. Directing a movie for the first and only time, British actor Charles Laughton creates a poetic and unusual parable of greed, corruption, and redemption in a visual and rhythmic style that consciously echoes both German Expressionism and the films of cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith. Aided by former Griffith star and muse Lillian Gish, stunning imagery from renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and evocative music by Walter Schumann, Laughton transformed Davis Grubb's novel into the closest thing to a gothic fairy tale ever put on film. All the classic elements of that form are there - dead parents, a wicked guardian, children in peril, a secret that must be guarded at all cost, a magical journey through a world populated by animals and shadows, the longing for the peace and safety of home, and a fairy godmother figure (Gish) who brings a resolution to the story and redemption for the children.
"It's really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale we were telling," Laughton said. "We tried to surround the children with creatures they might have observed, and that might have seemed part of a dream. It was, in a way, a dream for them."
Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay for The Night of the Hunter 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. Luckily, Laughton had a more positive 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."
Although critical reaction was generally favorable, the film was a commercial flop on its release, and it's not hard to understand why. One of the strangest movies in American film history, it was a total anomaly in the midst of the 1950s. It was an adult story told through the eyes of children, an almost Biblical tale steeped in barely suppressed sex and violence with elements of pure horror and touches of macabre humor. Yet images from the movie remain in the mind's eye long after viewing it - the preacher pursuing the children up the cellar stairs like the Frankenstein monster; the dead mother in her car at the bottom of the river, her long blond hair swaying in the current with the underwater vegetation; the deliberately unrealistic look of the journey down river with animals dominating the forefront of the image as they seem to watch the strange figures adrift in their boat; the unexpected and terrifying appearance of the preacher on his stolen horse silhouetted on the horizon; the face of Gish appearing in a starry sky in the film's finale.
For all these poetic and almost ethereal qualities, film scholars have noted the intense physicality of The Night of the Hunter, not only in its juxtaposition of light and shadow but in the harsh emptiness of the depressed rural towns against the eerie nighttime river landscape. The film may also be seen as a child-like vision of the confusing and contradictory nature of sex and the trap inherent in denying it or burying it under false religiosity. The children's widowed young mother, trapped in a small-minded gossip-ridden town, is easy prey for the repressed and tortured preacher with his condemnation of lust (even as his pocket knife bursts with fury through his clothes at the first stirring of desire). She is so swayed by what she believes is true religious fervor, she willingly accepts both sexual rejection by the preacher and her own murder as salvation. On the other hand there is the benevolent Rachel, who spouts Bible verses about compassion and forgiveness and does not condemn. She wants to protect her blossoming young ward Ruby from making mistakes she'll regret, but she also presents the girl with an eye-catching brooch that acknowledges her need to feel attractive and adult. The most honestly religious or spiritual voice in the movie, she looks on the temptations and realities of the physical world with a gentle bemusement.
Much of the film's power, however, is due to the incredible central performance of Robert Mitchum. Making full use of his tough-guy image and sleepy-eyed sexuality while equally playing against it, the persona he and Laughton create for the preacher is that of a brutal coward and a repressed psychotic. Many observers - Mitchum included - consider this his most complex and rich performance. One thing is certain, however - he's one of the most terrifying characters in cinema, worthy of taking his place beside any of the monsters lurking under the beds or in the minds of children scared and bewildered by the world around them.
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.
by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford
The Essentials - The Night of the Hunter
Pop Culture 101 - The Night of the Hunter
Scenes from The Night of the Hunter were featured in Visions of Light (1992), a documentary about cinematography.
Charles Laughton later made a recording of excerpts from the book on which the movie was based, accompanied by music from the film's soundtrack.
The image of Shelley Winters as Willa, underwater with her long hair flowing in the current, brings to mind her character in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), who boasted that as a champion swimmer she could hold her breath longer than anyone.
Other filmed versions of works by David Grubb include Fools Parade (1971) starring James Stewart and Kurt Russell and a story for Darkroom, a horror anthology series produced for television in 1981.
by Rob Nixon
Pop Culture 101 - The Night of the Hunter
Trivia - The Night of the Hunter - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
Initially, Laughton had asked his wife, Elsa Lanchester, to play Miz Cooper but she didn't want to do it, the main reason being that it would put her in a "hypersensitive" situation with her husband.
Betty Grable was Laughton's first choice to play Willa, the role that eventually went to Shelley Winters. Teresa Wright was also considered for the part as well.
The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton's only directorial effort. Starting out on the British stage in 1926, he had been acting in film since 1928 and came to Hollywood in the early '30s. A portly, homely man with very particular idiosyncrasies and affectations, he was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. Nevertheless he gave several unforgettable performances in popular and acclaimed American and British films of the decade, among them the imperious father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), the fish-out-of-water valet in the comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (1935), and the title roles in Rembrandt (1936) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). He was nominated for an Oscar® as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and won Best Actor as the British monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). He also portrayed the reluctant Roman Emperor in Joseph von Sternberg's aborted I, Claudius (1937), one of the most legendary of all "lost films." Laughton continued acting into his sixties in such pictures as The Canterville GhostThe Paradine Case (1947), as Henry VIII again in Young Bess (1953), Spartacus (1960), and his final movie, Advise and Consent (1962). He received another Best Actor Oscar® nomination as the irrepressible barrister in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which he appeared with his wife of many years (although he was known to be homosexual), Elsa Lanchester.
Eager to continue the collaboration begun with Laughton on The Night of the Hunter, producer Paul Gregory bought the film rights to Norman Mailer's war novel, The Naked and the Dead. Laughton was at first eager to do it; he worked with Stanley Cortez on ideas for cinematography and sent him to Hawaii to scout locations. He hired the Sanders brothers to help him develop a script. But after six months, it became apparent Laughton was drawing the process out too long for undetermined reasons. Nevertheless, Norman Mailer wrote later about what he learned from him: "He gave me, in fact, a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director, as he would explain to me, sometimes patiently, sometimes at the edge of his monumental impatience, how certain scenes which worked in the book just weren't feasible for the movie." The story was eventually brought to the screen in 1958 - the only other movie Paul Gregory ever produced - with Raoul Walsh directing.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez is the brother of actor Ricardo Cortez, who started out in the 1920s as a Valentino-like Latin Lover. Stanley Cortez's Oscar®-nominated photography for Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) solidified his reputation as a masterful black-and-white cinematographer. Among his other work is Since You Went Away (1944), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963). He won the Film Critics of America award in 1942 for The Magnificent Ambersons and a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1990.
When Robert Mitchum first learned that Shelley Winters had won the part of Willa Harper, he said, "She looks and sounds as much like a wasted West Virginia girl as I do. The only bit she'll do convincingly is to float in the water with her throat cut."
Billy Chapin is the brother of TV child star Lauren Chapin (Father Knows Best).
James Gleason (Uncle Birdie) appeared with Charles Laughton in the film Tales of Manhattan (1942).
Laughton's uncredited assistants on the picture, Terry and Dennis Sanders, had only one short film to their credit before working on this - A Time Out of War (1954). They went on to film careers of their own, with Terry producing many of his brother's pictures, most of which were B-movies like Crime and Punishment USA (1959) and War Hunt (1962). Dennis Sanders' most notable work was the concert documentary, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970).
To promote the movie, Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters did a guest shot on The Ed Sullivan Show in the spring of 1955. Winters recounted in her autobiography how the stress of doing live television caused Mitchum to drink and caused her to become "shrill and numb." The two got into costume - with Mitchum displaying the words "love" and "hate" on his hands - and performed their scene quite badly. Winters said she stuttered and lapsed into "Brooklynese," while Mitchum spoke so quietly their microphones had to be cranked up so loud "millions of viewers across the U.S. could hear our stomachs rumble." During the scene, according to Winters, Mitchum held up the wrong hand to illustrate a point about love and hate, and the audience laughed.
The children's father was played by Peter Graves, brother of James (star of TV's Gunsmoke series) Arness and perhaps best known for his role as Jim Phelps on the TV series Mission: Impossible and as Capt. Oveur in the comedy Airplane! (1980).
Lillian Gish is probably best known for her films with D.W. Griffith, the pioneer of American cinema - The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Orphans of the Storm (1921). Before appearing in The Night of the Hunter, she hadn't made a film since Portrait of Jennie (1948). Her remarkable career stretched from 1912 to her last film, The Whales of August (1987).
FAMOUS QUOTES from THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
MOVIE TAGLINE: "The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, but above allÉthe suspense!"
RACHEL COOPER (Lillian Gish): "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing. But inwardly they are ravenous wolves."
HARRY POWELL (Robert Mitchum): "Now what's it to be, Lord, another widow? How many's it been? Six? Twelve?"
HARRY POWELL: "Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that you mind the killings. Your book is full of killings. But there are things you hate, Lord. Perfume-smelling things. Lacey things. Things with curly hair."
BEN HARPER (Peter Graves): "I robbed that bank cause I got tired of seeing children roaming the woodlands without food. Children roaming the highways in this here Depression. Children sleeping in old abandoned car bodies and junk heaps. And I promised myself I'd never see the day when my young'uns would want."
HARRY POWELL: "I come not with peace, but with a sword."
BEN HARPER: "What religion you profess, preacher?"
HARRY POWELL: "The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us."
HARRY POWELL: "H-A-T-E. It was with this left hand that ol' brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts, these fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man, the right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch and I'll show you the story of life. These fingers, dear hearts, is always warrin' and tuggin', one agin the other. Now watch Ôem. Ol' brother left hand, left hand Hate's a fighter and it looks like Love's a goner. But wait a minute, wait a minute! Hot dog! Love's a winnin', yessiree. It's Love that won and ol' left hand's down for the count!"
ICEY SPOON: "When you been married to a man 40 years, you know all that don't amount to a hill o' beans. I been married to my Walt that long and I swear, in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my cannin'. A woman's a fool to marry for that. That's something for a man. The good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that, not really want it. It's all just a fake and a pipe dream."
WILLA HARPER (Shelley Winters): "I feel clean now. My whole body's just a quiverin' with cleanness."
HARRY POWELL: "You thought, Willa, that the minute you walked through that door I'd start pawin' at you in that abominable way men are supposed to do on their weddin' night. É Look at yourself. What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men. You want more children, Willa?"
W ILLA HARPER: "IÉno."
HARRY POWELL: "It's the business of this marriage to mind those two you have now, not to beget more."
WILLA HARPER: "Help me to be clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be."
HARRY POWELL: "Don't touch my knife. That makes me mad, that makes me very mad."
RACHEL COOPER: "She'll be losin' her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not I'll be saddled with the consequences."
RACHEL COOPER: "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for somethin' in this world and I know it, too."
RACHEL COOPER: "It's a hard world for little things."
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Trivia - The Night of the Hunter - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
The Big Idea - The Night of the Hunter
From the very beginning, it was decided by both men that Robert Mitchum would play the murderous preacher. Gregory thought the actor's unique and "quicksilver" personality was ideal for the role, the way he kept people off balance with his unpredictability - "a little scary," the producer said. "This character I want you to play is a diabolical sh*t," Laughton told Mitchum to which the actor replied, "Present." With Mitchum's name attached to the project, United Artists agreed to put up the small $700,000 budget
To adapt the novel, they hired Southern-born James Agee, a poet and journalist who made a name for himself providing the text for Walker Evans' photos in the highly acclaimed Depression chronicle, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In 1939, Agee wrote a treatment for a film based on Andre Malraux's Man's Fate. Although it was never produced, it began Agee's long and deep interest in film, and he became one of cinema's most passionate and intelligent critics, first for Time, then The Nation. Laughton and Gregory hired Agee largely on the strength of his screenplay for John Huston's highly successful The African Queen (1951). What they apparently did not know was that, by the mid-1950s, the writer was a difficult and quickly degenerating alcoholic. "The credits say Jim Agee wrote The Night of the Hunter, but he was rolling around on the floor drunk most of the time," Gregory later wrote. "He turned in a screenplay four times thicker than the book. Eventually Charles took on Dennis and Terry Sanders, whose only experience was an Academy Award-winning short they'd done as students at UCLA, to bounce ideas off."
According to a biographer of Agee, the renowned writer's script was not an adaptation at all but a "cinematic version" of the book in great detail with newsreel footage to document the Southern Depression setting and "any number of elaborate, impractical montages." Dennis Sanders confirmed that Laughton "tried to tell Jim Agee what to do" but that Agee didn't get it and Laughton wrote most of the screenplay himself. Refuting the above claim, however, was the discovery of Agee's first draft of the script in 2004; it proved that it reflected Laughton's final release version, almost scene for scene.
According to novelist Davis Grubb, Laughton wanted the film to closely resemble the mental pictures the author had in mind while writing the book. In the Lee Server biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, the author stated that Laughton "learned that Grubb was an amateur sketch artist who liked to draw scenes and caricatures of the people he created in his fiction. Seeing the value in such visualizations by the hand of the author himself, Laughton had him send them to Hollywood and phoned him up begging for new ones throughout the production, sometimes specifying that Grubb draw in the exact expression on a character's face that he'd had in mind while writing a particular scene. The writer produced over a hundred of these pen-and-ink drawings for the film. "I declare, perhaps immodestly," Grubb said, "that I was not only the author of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted but was the actual scene designer as well."
by Rob Nixon
The Big Idea - The Night of the Hunter
Behind the Camera - The Night of the Hunter
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
Behind the Camera - The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter
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
The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter (Critierion) - Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters & Lillian Gish in Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER on DVD
The frightening story is told partially from the point of view of small children. Hiding behind his Bible, serial killer Harry Powell charms Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), hoping to discover where her dead husband hid $10 thousand in stolen money. Soon after their marriage, Powell sets to extracting the secret of the money from Willa's children. Tiny Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is willing to accept her new daddy, but the older John (Billy Chapin) sees through Powell's deception and holds firm. Nobody is on John's side. His mother thinks he's holding on to his father's bad example, and the nosy Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) considers John a bad boy who "needs a dose of salts".
The unenthusiastic advertising campaign for The Night of the Hunter promised a racy thriller. The few ticket buyers must have been surprised to find an arty concoction stacked with exaggerated sets and stylized performances, and it disappeared from screens almost immediately. Long a buried cinematic treasure, the film now excites and energizes audiences with its nonconformist artistry. Filmmaker Spike Lee appropriated the film's show-stopping set piece, Harry Powell's insultingly simplistic dramatization of the conflict between good and evil using the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his fingers. But no film has come near Laughton and production designer Hilyard Brown's stylized representation of Depression-era Ohio. The dreamlike nighttime landscape is represented by artificial cutout hills and twinkling stars that resemble graphics from a child's story book. The frame house of the newly widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) appears to be only a few feet deep, while an entire neighboring farm is rendered in only two dimensions, like a child's diorama. The film's daytime scenes are more realistic yet present equally disturbing social content.1950s audiences weren't accustomed to images of hungry orphans begging door to door for castoff potatoes, or small children threatened by a sex murderer. The movie also dares to present down-home religion as essentially malign, an influence for conformism and hypocrisy.
The movie evokes comparisons with classic cinematic forms but doesn't fully align with any of them. One acknowledged influence is the silent classics of D.W. Griffith, as seen in the harmonious pictorials of the film's farm scenes and the presence of Griffith's iconic star Lillian Gish. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez ends one scene with a classic Griffith iris transition, performed in-camera. Yet the movie also uses helicopter shots, which in 1955 were not the norm in Hollywood fare. Laughton contrasts his bucolic daylight images with elements more at home in expressionist horror. Harry Powell's hulking silhouette is a Caligari- like nightmare, whether looming on a hilltop or drifting across the screen on the back of a mule, singing a hymn. The Harper basement becomes a pit surrounded by darkness and connected to reality by a diagonal staircase. When Harry is overtaken by the rapture of the "religion that God and me worked out betwixt us", Willa's bedchamber transforms into a perverse church, complete with a steeple formed by stabbing slivers of light.
The Night of the Hunter's stylized performances also take audiences by surprise. Robert Mitchum is amazing as the insane Harry Powell, who charms women with his romantic good looks and silences critics with his false piety. The more outrageous the charlatan's holy talk, the more the unthinking faithful accept him. Evelyn Varden's wickedly accurate Icey Spoon is a domineering church matron whose pea-brained endorsement enables Powell to do his dirty work. Powell need only bat his eyes at the love-starved Ruby (Gloria Castilo) and she'll do whatever he wants. Little Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is Powell's toughest conquest -- he never quite undermines Pearl's loyalty to her brother John (Billy Chapin) and must finally resort to threats of violence. These scenes were surely a major turn-off for the '50s audience. Filmmakers tread on thin ice when they put children in jeopardy, and five year-old Sally Jane appears genuinely surprised when Mitchum talks tough and flicks a switchblade right in front of her nose. What kind of stage mother would trust her child with Hollywood's most unpredictable bad boy?
The most disturbing content comes straight from Davis Grubb's novel. Harry Powell psychologically torments Willa Harper with guilt for her dead husband's crimes and shame for her own "filthy" sexuality. Numbed into submission and deprived of her better judgment, Willa denies obvious evidence of her new husband's murderous intentions. She instead accepts Powell as her savior and retreats into a fantasy of religious harmony. The film's mix of sex, violence and religious hysteria is potent stuff.
Charles Laughton's scathing criticism of "old time religion" as a repressive source of evil doesn't stop with the character of Harry Powell. The sanctimonious Icey Spoon and her self-righteous ilk are easily converted into a drunken lynch mob. This assault on degraded religious values might have attracted controversy had audiences seen The Night of the Hunter in large numbers. It was in fact rejected for exhibition in some parts of the South. The film's positive alternative to revivalism is Miss Cooper's home-based Bible teaching. Cooper forgoes paternal authoritarianism and instead teaches by example, stressing the positive values of understanding and forgiveness. She can be a nag but she also possesses natural wisdom. When her errant ward Ruby tearfully confesses that she's been skipping sewing lessons to "go with men", Miss Cooper offers sympathy, not condemnation or guilt: "You were just looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how".
The Night of the Hunter creates its own cosmos, with an absent father, a protective mother figure and a horrid devil. In the film's most inspired sequence the children flee from Powell in a small boat and find a brief respite suspended between twinkling stars and the dark river. A host of nocturnal animals watch them from the riverbanks. Are the rabbits, frogs and turtles there to protect the fugitives, or do they represent an indifferent nature? John and Pearl are ill equipped to survive in this uncivilized wilderness, but their spiritual innocence forms a momentary shield from fear. Pearl sings a beautiful, eerie tune that appears to transport their skiff past the spider's web and away from Powell, to safety. Her song makes the night bearable.
Producer Paul Gregory remembers that United Artists took one look and decided that Laughton's film was too arty to be a commercial contender. They were right in a broad sense, but a customized art-film release could have turned the movie into an "event" picture. From the middle 1930s on United Artists became the distributor of many independent productions, often films with content deemed uncommercial, whether politically controversial (So Ends Our Night), socially critical (The Underworld Story) or stylistically radical (Kiss Me Deadly). Charles Laughton was reportedly deeply discouraged by the commercial failure of his labor of love, which found recognition as a classic only long after he was gone.
Criterion's two-disc Blu-ray of The Night of the Hunter completely eclipses MGM's DVD from 2000. The full restoration and digital cleanup treatment given this marvelously filmed B&W show results in something beautiful to behold. We feel we can reach out and touch Jack Rabin's painted moon, and the contrast between the "Griffith" farm scenes and the "Caligari" night scenes is even more acute.
Expect some web grousing about the transfer's chosen aspect ratio, an absolutely correct, slightly matted widescreen 1.66:1. This wasn't done to fill HD monitors but to honor the film's original screen shape. Viewers accustomed to flat TV prints and videos will miss two or three bravura shots -- the wider view of the basement, the murder scene in the vaulted-ceiling bedroom -- that looked even more radical when projected full-frame. But the rest of the movie has plenty of dead space above and below, and for one interior night farm scene an open matte peers right over the top of the cyclorama backing, into the rafters of the sound stage. Criterion has chosen the right scan for their transfer.
The feature comes with a composite commentary featuring input from critic F.X. Feeney, author Preston Neal Jones, and The Night of the Hunter's second unit director Terry Sanders. UCLA Film Archives' restoration expert Robert Gitt is also present on the track. Criterion disc producer Issa Clubb includes plenty of rare prime-source extra content. A new documentary combines film clips and photos with the recollections of producer Paul Gregory to present a full picture of the film's production. In a new interview, Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow discusses The Night of the Hunter in terms of its director, making the case that Laughton's awareness of the persecution of gays contributed to the film's critical look at religious hypocrisy. A 1995 BBC introduction to the movie features interviews with the late actors Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. It shows how misinformation can become history when Mitchum incorrectly asserts that Laughton didn't use much of screenwriter James Agee's work. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez is given his own video showcase in a 1985 French TV interview filmed at the A.S.C.'s Hollywood clubhouse. Also included are author Davis Grubb's concept sketches and a clip fromThe Ed Sullivan Show with Peter Graves and Shelley Winters performing a scene cut from the movie. The film's ineffective, forgettable original trailer is also included.
Criterion's second Blu-ray disc makes The Night of the Hunter the year's most intriguing video release, bar none. It contains Charles Laughton Directs "Night of the Hunter", archivist Robert Gitt's eye-opening 150-minute presentation that until now has been screened only under special circumstances. Several decades ago Laughton's widow Elsa Lanchester turned over to Gitt hours of film kept by her husband, 35mm daily rolls of picture and audio. The outtakes document the entire filming, showing Laughton's impressive directing style in full detail. It's fascinating to hear him shape the performances by leaving the camera running while he coaches his actors. Laughton has the confidence of his cast and is especially good at obtaining precise performances from his child actors. Young Billy Chapin comes off as a responsive professional and 5 year-old Sally Jane Bruce exhibits remarkable concentration under Laughton's sensitive, nurturing direction. Laughton is harsher with Shelley Winters but this seems a method of helping her maintain a certain level of anxiety. Neither actor nor director loses concentration or shows any irritation. Asked to say a quick prayer before one of her revival speeches, Ms. Winters blurts out what sounds like a line of Hebrew! But nobody laughs, as this is serious business.
The two hours of dailies never become tedious. We see one older actor replaced and watch many Lillian Gish outtakes where she's more conventionally sentimental than she appears in the final film. When Evelyn Varden recites her dicey dialogue about sex with her husband, we see a variety of Don Beddoe's humiliated reactions, while Ms. Varden tries her best to conceal her awareness of the sly joke during stage waits, after "cut" is called. The biggest surprise of the dailies is Robert Mitchum, who has his character down pat at all times and receives little or no verbal direction from Laughton. Mitchum is professional with the kids and gentle with little Sally Jane -- no matter how threatening he becomes, she just keeps staring at him with her saucer eyes. Respecting the children and his director, Mitchum at one point seems to catch himself before saying something profane. Like everyone else, he gives a big performance and relies on Laughton to tame it down later. His famous scream in the river seems to have been created in post-production. In dailies, Mitchum shouts out short barking noises instead of a long, Edvard Munch-like scream. Perhaps Mitchum saw his character as sort of a demonic, cowardly animal?
Robert Gitt also leaves room for clips of the film's excellent special effects by Louis De Witt and Jack Rabin. We see individually filmed animals and a fake spider's web combined optically for the river escape scene. Several nearly undetectable mattes combine sets and twinkling stars, and add a Mississippi riverboat to a scene filmed in Southern California.
For its contribution to cinema history, Criterion's The Night of the Hunter Blu-ray is the outstanding home video release of the year.
For more information about The Night of the Hunter, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Night of the Hunter, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Night of the Hunter (Critierion) - Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters & Lillian Gish in Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER on DVD
Critics' Corner - The Night of the Hunter
In 1992, the National Film Preservation Board selected The Night of the Hunter to be preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
The Critics' Corner: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
"The atmosphere of the sticks is intense, and Robert Mitchum plays the murderous minister with an icy unctuousness that gives you the chills. There is more than malevolence and menace in his character. There is a strong trace of Freudian aberration, fanaticism, and iniquity. É [Laughton] has got out of Shelley Winters a grueling performance as the vapid widow and wife. The scene of the wedding-night of Miss Winters and the preacher is one of the most devastating of its sort since Von Stroheim's Greed ." - Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, September 30, 1955
"A remarkably effective scene has Miss Winters, now spirited, confessing her sins and asking forgiveness at a prayer meeting after she is persuaded into marriage by Mitchum." - Variety, July 20, 1955.
"From its opening moment, with the face of Lillian Gish magically materializing out of a star-filled sky, to its last shot of a snow-covered farm house as comfortably banal as a calendar illustration, The Night of the Hunter is one of the more unclassifiable films ever made. É As directed by Charles Laughton, this 1955 production is a film of looming expressionist shadows, homespun back-fence chatter, psychopathic sexual craving, and victorious maternal wisdom. It is also along with Lang's Moonfleet  and Erice's Spirit of the Beehive , one of the finest, truest portraits of the childhood experience." - David Ehrenstein, Los Angeles Reader, May 1982.
"Despite its peculiar overtones of humor, this is one of the most frightening movies ever made (and truly frightening movies become classics of a kind). É The two kids' flight from the madman is a mysterious, dream-like episode - a deliberately "artistic" suspense fantasy, broken by the appearance of a Christian variety fairy godmother." - Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, January 1983.
"A distinctly American Gothic interpretation of German Expressionism, with tilt pans, Stanley Cortez's moody cinematography, and a startling appearance of Lillian Gish as the incarnation of Good combating Mitchum's unreconstructed Evil. A movie about the American nightmare of greed, about the precipitous experience of two innocents, about the triumph of spirit over will, The Night of the Hunter embodies the evil of Pox Americana and its transcendence." - Carrie Rickey, The Village Voice, January 1983.
"While many films are spoken of as offbeat or unusual, it generally becomes evident with the passing of time that these films are more conventional than they once appeared to be. É It remains possible, however, for an occasional film to be extremely idiosyncratic, and one film that may be so described is The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton. This work remains unexpected and strange after 25 years; far from being simply a curiosity, however, it is an important achievement, reflecting directly the influence of the silent cinema in a highly personal way." - Blake Lucas, Magill's Survey of the Cinema (Series I, Vol. 3).
"The film runs counter to the rules of commercialism; it will probably be Laughton's single experience as a director. It's a pity, for despite failures of style, The Night of the Hunter is immensely inventive. It's like a horrifying news item retold by small children. É It makes us fall in love again with an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers." - Francois Truffaut, 1956 (reprinted in The Films in My Life, Simon & Schuster, 1975).
"Rumor has it that the final shooting script of The Night of the Hunter was one-third Laughton, one-third James Agee, and one-third Davis Grubb. Be that what it may, The Night of the Hunter displays a striking visual style, almost semi-Germanic Griffith, which is completely lacking in the Huston-Agee-Forester The African Queen É. Moral: Directors, not writers, are the ultimate auteurs of the cinema, at least of cinema that has any visual meaning and merit." - Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (Dutton, 1968).
"It is easy to see, however, that Night of the Hunter would never be a popular hit. Not only is the subject matter complex, the movie itself has a poetic and imagistic density which make it somewhat indigestible on first viewing. It benefits enormously from being seen twice, or more - something that can be expected of no popular audience; in fact, it would be correct to say it needs to be seen twice. It doesn't grab you by the lapel; it tries to suck you in." - Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (Grove, 1987).
"First time viewers are invariably startled by how weird and how brilliant is Charles Laughton's movie adaptation of Davis Grubb's riveting best-seller. It is a fascinating, truly unique work." - Danny Peary, Cult Movies 3 (Fireside).
Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford
Critics' Corner - The Night of the Hunter
Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter
- Christopher Lee, actor, (Horror of Dracula, The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
"A splendid, completely absorbing oral history...This is a celebratory book. (It) is an important book, as well. (It) transcends The Night of the Hunter and becomes a fascinating exploration of the private sources of art, and the evolution of artists."
- Filmfax, July/September 2005
"...offers the kind of back story actually worth one's undivided attention."
- Film Comment, March 2003
It was Mother Goose with goose bumps. It scared the living Levis off a young kid in Maine named Stephen King, and it has had the same impact on many another child and grown-up. It drew inspiration from D.W. Griffith and the German expressionists, but there has never been another movie, before or since, like The Night of the Hunter.
Although The Night of the Hunter wasn't a hit when it was released in 1955, today it boasts the honor of inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as well as a ranking among the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest Thrillers." In Heaven & Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions), published by Limelight Editions, author Preston Neal Jones reveals the fascinating inside story of the film's making - from its beginnings in the pages of Davis Grubb's novel to the acquisition of film rights by producer Paul Gregory, to the hiring of the late actor Charles Laughton to direct and James Agee to write the script, to every aspect of the film's development and production - casting, design, shooting, scoring, and editing - to the profound disappoint upon its release.
Heaven & Hell to Play With is the result of over a decade of archival research and interviews with a dozen key people associated with the film. Like the artistic collaboration inherent to the power of the film, Jones's narrative flows through the dramatic montage of memories offered by the interviewees: author Grubb; author's brother Louis Grubb; producer Gregory; actor Robert Mitchum; actress Lillian Gish; actor Don Beddoe; art director Hilyard Brown; cinematographer Stanley Cortez; editor Robert Golden; widow of composer Walter Schumann, Mrs. Sonya Goodman; second unit director Terry Sanders; actor/friend William Phipps. "Laughton, himself, of course, was a remarkable person, and the memories and insights of his associates--often at wide variance with each other--combine to evoke a portrait of the artist and the man." It was Laughton who strove beyond jolts and shudders to bring The Night of the Hunter a tenderness and compassion almost unheard-of in the suspense stories of the time. Surprisingly, it was the only film he ever directed. "As Gregory remembers, 'I think Charlie could see himself in the rendition of it. Yes, he could put you through miseries, but there was much that was saintly in Charles Laughton, too. And with the young children aspect of it, and the devil in Preacher Powell and all that, you see, that gave Laughton both heaven and hell to play with, and he was the master of both of those at that time.'"
The journey of Heaven & Hell to Play With takes place in four parts--Pre-production, Production, Post-production, The Morning After--and includes numerous artifacts from the film's making--photos, sketches, character portraits, telegrams, posters, press kit materials, sheet music--along with dozens of film stills.
With Heaven & Hell to Play With, Jones has not only produced the definitive source on the creation of The Night of the Hunter, but composed a symphony of voices, ideas, and action as compelling as the film it celebrates.
To order Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter, use this link to Barnes and Noble.
Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter
The Making of "The Night of the Hunter"
Mr. Gitt will explore the making of Laughton's masterwork (his sole directorial effort) in a talk illustrated with material culled from over eight hours of original rushes, trims and cuts from the THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER,the only classic for which such an abundance of material survives - providing an alternate view of the film's most memorable sequences, including variant camera angles and dialogue missing from the final film. But perhaps the most fascinating elements of all are between-takes glimpses of Laughton directing his actors by playing all the parts himself - men, women and children. "That these out-takes survived at all is a miracle... To watch them is to feel present at the creation of a classic motion picture." Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times.
The presentation will be shown as a double feature with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: "Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms" sing both shotgun-toting child protector Lillian Gish and lurking psycho preacher Robert Mitchum, who sports a pocket switchblade, as well as fingers tattooed "Love" and "Hate." Fairy tale and nightmare combine as Shelley Winters' orphans Sally Bruce and Billy Chapin odyssey through the American heartland, in this spellbinding folk tale adapted from the Davis Grubb novel by legendary critic and scenarist (The African Queen) James Agee (though Laughton purportedly completely rewrote his 350-page draft). A hypnotic tribute to the visuals of D.W. Griffith, with memorable images including a startling A-frame ceiling above a timorous victim (underscored by Sibelius' valse triste); the undulations of an underwater corpse's hair; and the children's nightmarish downriver trip; all stunningly photographed by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who considered it one of the two most exciting experiences of his long career (the other was Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons). "Haunting and highly personal... clearly the work of a master." - New York Times.
Presented in association with the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Night of the Hunter is released by MGM Distribution.
For press information, contact Harris Dew at 212-966-0730 or mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, links and showtimes, check out our website at www.filmforum.com
The Making of "The Night of the Hunter"
Restorations - Night of the Hunter
CHARLES LAUGHTON'S THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
For this year's New York Film Festival, director Martin Scorsese was asked to select a film as a model of film restoration and choose The Night of the Hunter which was presented to the festival audiences in a stunning new print, struck from the camera negative and with digitally restored sound by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. With any luck, this uniquely American film will be programmed in upcoming film festivals and movie venues in major cities this year.
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 350-page script that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Luckily, Laughton had a more positive 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 The 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, the director 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.
By Jeff Stafford
TCM PREMIERES THE RESTORED VERSION OF GILLO PONTECORVO'S "THE WIDE BLUE ROAD"
Turner Classic Movies will present the U.S. television premiere of the critically acclaimed and recently restored 1957 Italian film LA GRANDE STRADA AZZURRA (THE WIDE BLUE ROAD) on Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. ET as part of a tribute to the film's star, Yves Montand, on what would have been his 80th birthday. The tribute will also include two of the actor's other films.
Presented by Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman, THE WIDE BLUE ROAD was recently restored by Milestone Film & Video, with funding from TCM and is also the debut film of director Gillo Pontecorvo, best known for his moive, Battle of Algiers (1965). THE WIDE BLUE ROAD is the story of a poor Italian fisherman's struggle to feed his family. On the surface, this deceptively simple story is of an outlaw fisherman's struggle to keep his livelihood and his family together by using illegal fishing techniques, but a closer look reveals the communist views of its creators. The film also serves as a showcase for Montand's acting expertise, as he inhabits the complex character of Squarci¿, a fisherman seeking to increase his catch by bombing for fish instead of netting them.
THE RETURN OF A JEAN-LUC GODARD MASTERPIECE
At long last someone has taken the effort to restore one of Jean-Luc Godard's seminal films of the sixties - Band of Outsiders. Accessible even to non-fans of the French filmmaker, this 1964 release looks just as fresh, spontanteous, and inventive as it did upon its original release. On the surface, the plot is deceptively simple: two students, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), befriend their new classmate, Odile (Anna Karina). A rapid chain of events follows sparked by Odile's confession that she lives with her aunt in a villa that houses a hidden fortune. Like kids playing movie gangsters, the trio plot to steal the money but soon discover that their scheme is no match for the grim reality that awaits them.
Loosely based on Fools' Gold, an American crime novel of the fifties written by Dolores Hitchens, Band of Outsiders works on one level as a playful homage to B-movies while at the same time critiquing the dangers of movie-fed fantasies. Even today, the film remains consistently unpredictable: characters occasionally address the camera, jump cuts and unusual camera angles accent the erratic, slapdash behavior of the three principals, and the sombre, grey cinematography by Raoul Coutard often resembles the look of an Arget photograph. Of the many famous set pieces, the Madison dance scene is easily the most celebrated with Karina, Brasseur, and Frey unexpectedly going into a line dance at a small bohemian cafe. If you're a Francophile, you'll enjoy Godard's use of Parisian locations as much as his Gallic re-working of Hollywood cliches. Much of Band of Outsiders was shot in the working-class neighborhoods east of the Bastille and along the Marne River but there are also such familiar Parisian sights as the Metro, billboards, cafes, and, of course, the Louvre, which figures prominently in one madcap sequence.
Thanks to Rialto, who brought us the original director's cut of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) a few years back, Band of Outsiders is being distributed theatrically in a beautiful new 35mm print which accents the overcast, wintry look of the film (It was shot in February and March). It was recently screened in New York City at the Film Forum where it had critics rhapsodizing about its poetic qualities all over again. Amy Taubin of The Village Voice wrote "Band of Outsiders is less nostalgic for the past then it's heartbroken by the present - by the knowledge that the last traces of the world of Verlaine and Rimbaud, of Claude Renoir, the father, and Jean Renoir, the son, are about to be obiterated by the onrush of '60s consumer capitalism." Charles Taylor of Salon.com said, "We never feel more complicity in "Band of Outsiders" than we do when Karina, addressing the camera, says, "My heart goes out at the sight of you." Odile may be speaking about the boys she loves; Karina may have directed the line to her then-husband behind the camera. Today, she seems to be speaking directly to those of us in the audience whose lives - and fantasy lives - have been dominated by the movies, who still love them with the ardor of a first romance, even as we're convinced that there has to be something more."
With a little luck, Band of Outsiders might spark enough interest in Godard to inspire Rialto or another enterprising distributor to restore other early works by the director. At any rate, if you're never seen a Godard film before, this is a great place to begin.
By Jeff Stafford
BOB LE FLAMBEUR
Often cited as one of the most influential filmmakers of postwar France, whose work anticipated the look and style of the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville is finally starting to receive some belated international recognition for his films. Bob Le Flambeur (1956) is currently enjoying a revival in major cities across the U.S. and several of his other films have recently been remastered and released on VHS and DVD.
Bob Le Flambeur was Melville's fourth feature and a distinct departure from his earlier adaptation of literary classics like Jean Vercors' Le Silence de la Mer (1947) and Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles (1950). The film is a detailed depiction (strikingly photographed in black and white) of the robbery of the Casino de Deauville's bank vault on the eve of the French Grand Prix. Melville was first approached with the story idea for Bob Le Flambeur just prior to seeing John Huston's The Asphalt Junge (1950). "After I had seen Huston's masterpiece," Melville told interviewer Rui Nogueira, "I could no longer deal, either dramatically or tragically, with the preparation and execution of a robbery. So I decided to reshape my scenario completely and turn it into a light-hearted film. Bob Le Flambeur is not a pure policier, but a comedy of manners."
Even at the time of its original release, Bob Le Flambeur was referred to as 'a love letter to Paris which no longer exists,' particularly in its evocative views of the Montmartre neighborhood. The film is just as atmospheric and beguiling today and has been championed by such critics as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice who called it, "The cinematic birth of the cool! Melville's drollest, most likable gangster movie!....a superb riff with a boffo finale!" The newly restored print of Bob Le Flambeur, which recently appeared at the Film Forum in New York City, features newly translated sub-titles by Lenny Borger, who did such a wonderful job on the recent restoration of Rififi (1955). With any luck, Bob Le Flambeur will get a release on home video and DVD later this year. In the meantime, you should check out Le Doulos (1961), Le Samourai (1967) and Un Flic (1971). There is also the possibility that Rialto, who distributed the original cut of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) a few years back, will be releasing a restored version of Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (1970) later this year.
APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX
Maybe you've heard the news that Francis Ford Coppola has re-edited an extra hour of material back into Apocalypse Now (this version premiered at the Cannes festival with a U.S. release planned for later this summer entitled Apocalypse Now Redux). What's new in Francis Ford Coppola's restored version? Here are a few highlights, culled from the Miramax web site: The much-discussed French plantation sequence, which includes a riverside encounter, the funeral of Clean, a rancorous dinner, and Willard's seduction of (and by) Roxanne, a young French widow (played by Aurore Clement). At the dinner, the patriarch of the French plantation, Hubert deMorais (played by the late Christian Marquand) asks rhetorically: "Why do we stay here? It keeps our family together. We fight to keep what is ours. You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history." This sequence, Coppola says,"captures an exotic yearning, groping for long-vanished ideals and a crumbling way of life that presages and essentially predicts the folly of America's experience in Vietnam. These characters are sort of ghosts like Bunuel has ghosts: people who are trapped in their own thinking from years ago."
An expanded Playboy playmates sequence. Coppola remembers: "This was never even in the assembly because it was shot during the typhoon when we had to stop shooting, and the scene was never completed. But in this new version Walter found a way to get in and out of the sequence; In the beginning of the sequence, we learn that the Playboy helicopter has run out of fuel and landed at a remote Medevac base along the river. As Willard
leaves the boat, the chief (Albert Hall) asks: "Captain, are you giving away our fuel for a Playmate of the Month."; Willard replies: "No, Playmate of the Year, chief." Coppola says: "In their way, the girls are the corresponding characters of those young boys on the boat, except they're being exploited in sexual ways. But it's the same thing, you know how they're being consumed; used up by a society that calls itself moral and yet isn't."
A new scene with Marlon Brando: "Don't try to escape, or you'll be killed," Kurtz tells Willard in their first meeting. Kurtz, holding Willard captive in a metal shed, quotes an American intelligence analyst recently returned to Vietnam to sound out the situation for President Nixon. "He told the President last week that: 'Things felt much better, and smelled much better over there.'; How do they smell to you, soldier?" Kurtz asks his charge. The deletion of this scene was one of the last cuts the filmmakers made in 1979, in the interest of time. Restoring this philosophical scene, Murch says, "sets up the last scene in the film much more effectively."
All of this talk about Apocalypse Now Redux started us wondering about films that exist in two versions. Sure there are countless films that were slightly different in America and overseas (such as Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train), had minor trims for content (Robocop), were reworked by the director (The Wild Bunch) or other similar oddities (Abbott and Costello's first film One Night in the Tropics was for years missing an entire scene that triggered the plot!). But what really got us thinking are films that can be seen in your choice of Version A or Version B. Our crack TCM researchers came up with the following:
The Big Sleep - Made right at the tail end of World War II, this Humphrey Bogart classic was held up by the studio because they had a glut of films to release. In the meantime, though, co-star Lauren Bacall lept from new face to major star which, along with some other behind-the-scenes maneuvering, resulted in the filming of new material and some re-editing to emphasize her new status. This reworking is the familiar one but the original was recently released to the public. You can see both versions on TCM.
The Godfather - Coppola isn't new to re-editing. For a TV showing of the first two Godfather films he put all the material into chronological sequence and added deleted material to make one giant epic called The Godfather Saga. Then that big saga was again slightly re-edited and released on video as The Godfather Epic. Then after the third film appeared, that too was edited into the chronological story for a video set called The Godfather Trilogy. And of course all the films are also available separately.
Passion of Joan of Arc - Here's one that's even more complicated than the Godfather films. This 1928 classic was immediately denounced by censors which resulted in some small cuts but the real tragedy occurred when the negative and most of the prints were destroyed in a laboratory fire. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer reconstructed another negative using outtakes and other surviving material but guess what? That too burned up in a fire. Apparently still floating around at the time were prints of these two versions but they seem to have been chopped up or simply destroyed. In the early '30s the film was trimmed to almost an hour and had voice-overs added while during the next decade came a poorly regarded "restoration" and then in 1951 there was yet another version done with additional dubious shots added. Finally 1981 brought a wonderful surprise. A Norweigan mental hospital discovered that it had a print of Dreyer's original cut stored literally in one of their closets. This was restored to as much of its full glory as possible and can be seen on TCM.
Touch of Evil - Orson Welles' struggles with the studios are legendary and perhaps only the butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons rivals his travails with this one. A 1958 film noir classic, Touch of Evil apparently so horrified the studio that they looked for a way to cut their losses. So they took a 108 minute version prepared for preview screenings that Welles was still working on, cut it down to 95 minutes and dumped that into theatres. For years, this was all that was available until the preview version quietly appeared on video in the 1980s. But that wasn't enough. Welles had prepared a 58-page memo about how envisioned the film, information that guided a 1998 revision by restoration expert Rick Schmidlin which may be as close as we're likely to get to Welles' intentions. So where does this leave us? Three different versions of the same film, none of them definitive or a "director's cut" and all three available at one time or another on video (though unfortunately only the revision is on DVD).
The Big Sky - Maybe you've noticed that when TCM shows Howard Hawks' classic Western (chosen by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as one of the 100 greatest American films) it runs about 20 minutes longer than most reference book listings and the video release. That's because the material was trimmed shortly after release and practically unseen until our airings.
Black Sunday - A good example of how small changes can really alter a film is Mario Bava's classic horror film. It's a subtle and atmospheric story (adapted from the same Gogol tale used for the cult Russian film Vij) but marketed almost as kiddie fare in the U.S. The grown-up dialogue was watered down, the moody music replaced by a typically schlocky Les Baxter score, and numerous small edits were made to protect sensitive Americans. Recently, though, the original version appeared on DVD and can be seen for the striking visual experience it really is. (An even more extreme revision exists in Bava's career. After his oblique, dream-like film Lisa and the Devil was considered unreleasable it was taken over by the producer and so drastically reworked with new material that the story turned out quite different. That version was released as House of Exorcism to capitalize on that trend but both can now be found on DVD.)
Restorations - Night of the Hunter
Get your state troopers out here. I got something trapped in my barn.- Rachel Cooper
There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.- Rev. Harry Powell
Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t'other. Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!- Rev. Harry Powell
It's a hard world for little things.- Rachel Cooper
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.- Rachel Cooper
The sequence purportedly showing the preacher riding a horse in the distance was filmed in false perspective and was actually a midget astride a pony.
The Swedish title spoils the film, as it tells where the money is hidden.
In his biography, Robert Mitchum stated that director Charles Laughton found the script by James Agee totally unacceptable; he paid off Agee, sent him packing and rewrote virtually the entire script himself, uncredited.
The film's copyright statement reads in full: "Paul Gregory Productions, a limited California partnership, consisting of Gregory Associates, Inc., a California corp., as the general partner, & Paul Gregory & Robert Mitchum, individually, as the limited partners." After the film's opening credits, Lillian Gish, as "Rachel Cooper," is seen against a black background illuminated with twinkling lights. She reads the Bible to a group of children, whose faces are seen in cutouts against the black background. She reminds them of the warning "beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing," but inwardly are ravening wolves. As she continues, "ye shall know them by their fruits," the scene changes to a group of children playing outdoors, near the Ohio River, and discovering the body of a dead woman in a cellar. Rachel again continues, "by their fruits, ye shall know them," and the film cuts to "Preacher Harry Powell," who is driving in his stolen car and talking to the Lord about what he is to do next.
According to contemporary news items, the screen rights to The Night of the Hunter, Davis Grubb's first novel, were optioned by producer Paul Gregory for $10,000 before the book, which became a best-seller, was published. Gregory, who had produced several theatrical ventures directed by noted English actor Charles Laughton, brought the book to Laughton's attention, and he agreed to make his directorial debut with the property. A January 9, 1954 Publishers Weekly article announced that if Gregory picked up the option, Grubb would be paid an additional $75,000, "plus a share in the film's profits." On December 24, 1953 Daily Variety reported that Gregory intended the film to be the first of two pictures produced annually by Paul Gregory Productions, with which Laughton was to continue to be associated. The Night of the Hunter was the first feature film produced by Gregory.
Modern sources report that Gregory attempted to interest several studios in financing and distributing the film, including Columbia and Warner Bros. According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Columbia submitted a synopsis of the novel to the PCA for their opinion in January 1954. Joseph I. Breen, the PCA's director, replied that it would be very difficult to film the novel, as "the character of Harry Powell, the intinerant revivalist, is in violation of the Production Code, inasmuch as it protrays a minister of religion as a murderer, as well as some kind of sex maniac." Breen further stated that it would be "necessary to change [Preacher's] vocation entirely, to get away from any flavor of religious hypocrisy on his part." Breen also objected to the depiction of "Ruby," who in the novel is a simple-minded teenager frequently indulging in sexual encounters, and to the lynching of Preacher. [Although the film shows Preacher secretly being taken out of the jail by the police, in the book, he is killed by the mob led by "Walt and Icey Spoon."]
In July 1954, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock worked with Gregory and Laughton to correct the problems inherent in filming the novel. In a July 30, 1954 internal memo, Shurlock stated that the "principal problem [still remaining] had to do with making certain that the leading character could in no sense be interpreted as a minister." The PCA continued to object to the lynching of Preacher, and urged Gregory and Laughton to "check the final screenplay with Mr. [George] Heimric[h] of the Protestant Broadcasting and Film Council." Although the PCA was largely satisfied with the script by August 1954, Heimrich wrote to Breen on August 23, 1954 that the commission "is considerably disturbed by this screenplay as it is written." On the same day, Heimrich also wrote to Gregory, strongly urging him not to make the film at all, stating that the character of Preacher ridiculed the Protestant religion and his actions were "distortions and misinterpretations, and will leave the impression with millions of theatre-goers that the Lord condones Killing for money."
The filmmakers continued to work with the PCA on removing any impression that Preacher was an ordained, legitimate reverend, and eventually the screenplay was approved. Protestant groups, however, continued to object to the PCA office about the picture, and on December 21, 1954, Shurlock informed a representative of the National Council on the Churches of Christ "that some people at the studio, who had seen a few scenes from the pic, were delighted that, as they reported, Laughton was getting exceedingly artistic results out of this somewhat unpromising basic material." In October 1955, the Protestant Motion Picture Council declared: "This study in human terror will be offensive to most religious people." In a modern source interview, Gregory noted that Protestant groups across the country objected to the released film and raised barriers to its exhibition.
Although some modern sources state that the filmmakers considered hiring Grubb to write the screenplay of his novel, they instead hired noted author James Agee. [Laughton did, however, continue to correspond frequently with Grubb during production and was influenced by the more than 100 sketches Grubb sent him of the characters and plot points.] Modern sources agree that the alcoholic Agee turned in a very large, mostly unusable script, which was extensively rewritten by Laughton. A July 30, 1954 memo in the PCA collection noted that Laughton was then at work rewriting the script, and modern sources report that the finished script was almost entirely Laughton's work, although he refused to take screen credit for it, even at Agee's urging. Agee died on May 16, 1955, before the film's release, and received a sole screenwriting credit on the finished picture.
Modern sources report that Gary Cooper was considered for the role of Preacher, and that both Laurence Olivier and John Carradine expressed interest in the part, while Betty Grable and Teresa Wright were considered for the role of "Willa." Modern sources also state that actresses considered for the role of Rachel included Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, Louise Fazenda and Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife. Before production began, modern sources state, Laughton viewed many of the films of director D. W. Griffith, whom he hoped to emulate. Upon viewing the Griffith films, Laughton became interested in hiring Gish, who had worked with Griffith numerous times. Gish had not appeared in a film since the 1949 Selznick production Portrait of Jennie (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). Outtakes from The Night of the Hunter, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives, reveal that Emmett Lynn was originally cast as "Uncle Birdie Steptoe," and was replaced by James Gleason after production began. According to modern sources, Laughton was not pleased with Lynn's performance.
Although a September 10, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item credited Frank Parmenter as the second unit director of the background footage shot in West Virginia, numerous modern sources instead credit Terry Sanders. Laughton became aware of the work of Sanders and his brother Denis through an Academy-Award winning short, which they had recently made as students at the University of California, Los Angeles. Impressed with their work, Laughton hired Terry to direct the second unit, while Denis worked with the main unit as a dialogue director. Modern sources note that the aerial footage directed by Terry was obtained using a helicopter rather than an airplane, which was unusal for the time period. Atlhough a March 4, 1954 Daily Variety item said that locations would also be shot in Pennslyvania, only West Virginia was used. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, other exterior sequences were shot on location at the Rowland V. Lee Ranch in the San Fernando Valley of CA.
Toward the end of production, the filmmakers were forced to shoot around Mitchum's complicated schedule, as he had to begin work on his next film, the United Artist's picture Not as a Stranger, on September 28, 1954. Mitchum was sometimes required to work on Sundays in order to finish his work on The Night of the Hunter. One of the shots in the picture most frequently commended by critics occurs during John and Pearl's journey down the river, when they decide to spend the night in a barn instead of sleeping in the skiff. John awakens and, seeing Preacher riding in the distance, wearily comments, "Don't he never sleep?" Although it is often assumed that the shot is a special effects shot using Mitchum, it was actually accomplished on a sound stage with the use of forced perspective. The camera was set up in the barn behind Billy Chapin and focused out onto the sound stage. In the distance, Chapin's stunt double, a dwarf dressed as Preacher, rode a small pony. The angle of the camera made it look as if Billy was gazing at a full-grown man riding in the distance.
According to modern sources, the startling underwater shot of Willa's corpse was accomplished by fitting a mannequin with a rubber mask of Shelley Winters' face, and shooting underwater in the water tank at Republic Studios. Although a September 13, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Don Cash, who is credited onscreen as the film's makeup artist, cast the mask of Winters, modern sources credit makeup artist Maurice Seiderman with the mask. Modern sources add the following names to the crew credits: Camera Operator Bud Martino; Assistant Camera Sy Hoffberg and Robert B. Hauser; Gaffer James Potevin; Orch Arthur Morton; Singer of "Lullaby" Kitty White; and Singer of "Pretty Fly" Betty Benson.
On October 11, 1954, Hollywood Reporter ran an ad, created by Saul Bass, announcing that the picture had completed principle production on October 7, 1954. The striking ad, featuring Preacher's tattoed hand clutching "Pearl's" doll, was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts as one of the fifty best advertisements of 1954, according to a January 31, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item. On July 19, 1955, Daily Variety reported that Lloyd T. Binford, the controversial head of the Memphis, TN censor board, had banned the film. Binford called it "the rawest I've ever seen," according to the article, even though he had not actually viewed the picture. Modern sources state that the picture received an "X," or adults only, certificate in Great Britain.
The film's world premiere was held in Gregory's hometown of Des Moines, IL on July 26, 1955 as a benefit for the local YMCA. The day of the premiere was declared "Paul Gregory Day" and featured a parade and live telecast on the Tonight Show television program. The picture received varied reviews, although the majority of them praised the acting, particularly that of Mitchum, who later considered his role as Preacher to be one of his finest performances. Many critics expressed opinions similar to that of the Life reviewer, who stated: "If sometimes [The Night of the Hunter] strains too hard at being simple and winds up being pretentious, it still is one of the year's most interesting and provocative films." The Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest reviewer added, "It's a fascinating picture, possibly difficult to sell but worth any effort to do so." New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, while stating that the picture suffered from Laughton's "inexperience," expressed great interest in seeing his next picture, which Crowther felt would "hit harder."
As noted above, over eight hours of outtakes of The Night of the Hunter were preserved and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The outtakes, as well as a large amount of written documentation about The Night of the Hunter, were donated by Lanchester to AFI in the 1970s, and the film was subsequently given to UCLA. UCLA also restored the picture, and the restoration had its premiere in October 2001 at the New York Film Festival. The outtakes show that, contrary to typical film technique, it was rarely "cut" by Laughton, who infrequently turned off the camera between takes, instead preferring to keep the camera rolling and direct his actors on camera before calling for another take. The outtakes call into question the assertions of several modern sources that Laughton had little patience with the child actors and frequently left the direction of them to Mitchum, as they show Laughton working closely and carefully with the children.
Although Laughton and Gregory intended to work together again on a film of The Naked and the Dead, and Laughton prepared a screenplay with the Sanders brothers, the project was never realized. Because The Night of the Hunter was not a financial success, it was difficult for Gregory to raise fund for the second project with Laughton as director, and Laughton, wounded by the failure of his first film, began to lose interest. The Naked and the Dead was instead directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Bros. in 1958. Although Laughton continued to act in feature films, he never directed another one. The Night of the Hunter also represented the last film score written by Walter Schumann, who died in 1958.
The picture has become a cult classic since its release, and is widely regarded by film critics and historians and modern filmmakers as one of the most important pictures of the 1950s. Preacher's "LOVE" and "HATE" tattoos have become a well-known cultural reference and are often imitated or parodied in films and television. In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and was number 34 on the list of AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills. Grubb's novel also served as the basis of the 1991 ABC-TV movie Night of the Hunter, which was directed by David Greene and starred Richard Chamberlain as Preacher and Diana Scarwid as Willa. Unlike the 1955 film, the 1991 television film did not include the character of Rachel.
Released in United States Fall September 1955
Re-released in United States October 26, 2001
Released in United States 1974
Released in United States September 1998
Released in United States 2001
Shown at New York Film Festival (Retrospective) September 28 - October 14, 2001.
Based on the novel "The Night of the Hunter," written by Davis Grubb and published in 1953.
Selected in 1992 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
The 2001 re-release is a newly restored 35mm print.
Charles Laughton's first and only feature directorial effort.
Released in United States Fall September 1955
Re-released in United States October 26, 2001 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States 1974 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (A Tribute to the Art of Cinematography) March 28 ¿ April 9, 1974)
Released in United States September 1998 (Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 3-7, 1998.)
Released in United States 2001 (Shown at New York Film Festival (Retrospective) September 28 - October 14, 2001.)