The Night of the Hunter (film)

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The Night of the Hunter
Nightofthehunterposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Laughton
Produced by Paul Gregory
Screenplay by James Agee
Charles Laughton
Based on the novel The Night of the Hunter 
by Davis Grubb
Starring Robert Mitchum
Shelley Winters
Lillian Gish
Music by Walter Schumann
Cinematography Stanley Cortez
Edited by Robert Golden
Production
  company
Paul Gregory Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s)
  • July 26, 1955 (1955-07-26) (premiere)
  • August 26, 1955 (1955-08-26) (Los Angeles)
Running time 92 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $795,000

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller film directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.[1] The film is based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, adapted for the screen by James Agee and Laughton. Its plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer who uses his charms to woo an unsuspecting widow and her two children in an attempt to steal a fortune hidden by the woman's dead husband. The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers, hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

The film's lyric and expressionistic style sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and it has influenced later directors such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, and Rob Zombie.

In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Plot[edit]

In the 1930s West Virginia, along the Ohio River, Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer, flees the scene of his latest victim. Powell, a misogynist (with a penchant for switchblade knives) and a self-appointed preacher, travels the country marrying and then killing women, believing he is doing God's work. Unaware he is a killer, the police arrest Powell for driving a stolen car.

Meanwhile, a local family man named Ben Harper ends up killing two people in a bank robbery. Before his arrest, he arrives home to his two young children, John and Pearl, and convinces them to keep the secret of where he has hidden the money: inside Pearl's rag doll. Harper and Powell share a cell where Powell, soon to be released, tries unsuccessfully to learn the location of the missing bank loot, only devising that Harper's children must know. Harper ends up executed for his crimes, leaving Powell to woo and marry Harper's widow, Willa.

Young John is the only one who doesn't trust Powell and denies him the knowledge of the money's hiding place, though he must constantly remind the younger and more trusting Pearl to keep the secret. Eventually Willa concludes that Powell's marriage to her was only to find the money which leads Powell to murder her, dump her body in the river, and cover it up. Left to care for John and Pearl, Powell finally discovers the money hidden inside the doll by threatening their lives. The children manage to flee with it down the river. They eventually find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper, a tough old woman who looks after stray children. Powell tracks them down, but Rachel sees through his false virtue and runs him off. Powell returns after dark, which leads to an all night stand-off ending in his being shot and injured. The police arrive to arrest Powell, having also discovered Willa's body. John ends up snapping, seeing the arrest of Powell to be almost identical to the arrest of his real father. John takes the doll and lashes it at the handcuffed Powell, spilling the ill-gotten money, and insists that he can have it if he wants it.

Powell is tried, convicted and sentenced for all his crimes. A lynch mob later tries to take Powell from the police station but the police retreat with him out the back, the professional executioner promising to see Powell soon. Finally, John and Pearl have their first Christmas together with Rachel and their new family.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The film was a collaboration of Charles Laughton and screenwriter James Agee. Laughton drew on the harsh, angular look of German expressionist films of the 1920s.[2]

The film's score, composed and arranged by Walter Schumann in close association with Laughton, features a combination of nostalgic and expressionistic orchestral passages. The film has two original songs by Schumann, "Lullaby" (sung by Kitty White, whom Schumann discovered in a nightclub) and "Pretty Fly" (originally sung by Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but later dubbed by an actress named Betty Benson). A recurring musical device involves the preacher making his presence known by singing the traditional hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Mitchum also recorded the soundtrack version of the hymn.[3]

In 1974, film archivists Robert Gitt and Anthony Slide retrieved several boxes of photographs, sketches, memos, and letters relating to the film from Laughton's widow Elsa Lanchester for the American Film Institute. Lanchester also gave the Institute over 80,000 feet of rushes and outtakes from the filming.[4] In 1981, this material was sent to the UCLA Film and Television Archive where, for the next 20 years, they were edited into a two-and-half hour documentary that premiered in 2002, at UCLA's Festival of Preservation.[5]

Reception[edit]

Critical response[edit]

The Night of the Hunter was not a success with either audiences or critics at its initial release, and Laughton never directed another film.[1] Nevertheless, the film has found a wider audience over the years, and Mitchum's performance, in particular, has been praised.

The film was shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism (bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surrealistic sets, odd camera angles) to create a simplified and disturbing mood that reflects the sinister character of Powell, the nightmarish fears of the children, and the sweetness of their savior Rachel. Due to the film's visual style and themes, it is also often categorized as a film noir.

Roger Ebert wrote, "It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up ... well after four decades."[6]

The Night of the Hunter was rated #34 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills ranking, and #90 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. In a 2007 listing of the 100 Most Beautiful Films, Cahiers du cinéma ranked The Night of the Hunter No. 2.[7] It is among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14. Powell was ranked #29 in the villains column in AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains.

In 2008, it was ranked as the 71st greatest movie of all time by Empire magazine in its issue of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.[8]

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Night of the Hunter to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected the film for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Remakes[edit]

The film was remade in 1991 as a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain.[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Callow, Simon: The Night of the Hunter, BFI Film Classics, BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing, 2000. 96 pages.
  • Couchman, Jeffrey: The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, Northwestern University Press, 2009. 264 pages.
  • Jones, Preston Neal: Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter, Limelight Editions, 2004. 400 pages.
  • Ziegler, Damien: La Nuit du chasseur, une esthétique cinématographique, Bazaar and co, 2008. 160 pages.

External links[edit]