The Night of the Hunter (film)
|The Night of the Hunter|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Charles Laughton|
|Produced by||Paul Gregory|
|Screenplay by||James Agee
|Based on||the novel The Night of the Hunter
by Davis Grubb
|Music by||Walter Schumann|
|Edited by||Robert Golden|
Paul Gregory Productions
|Distributed by||United Artists
Peter Rodgers Organization
The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American film noir directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. Based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, it was adapted for the screen by James Agee and Laughton. The plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal $10,000 hidden by her executed 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 lyrical and expressionistic style with its leaning on the silent era 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, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers.
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 the National Film Registry. The influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, only behind Citizen Kane.
In the 1930s West Virginia, along the Ohio River, Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer, flees the scene of his latest victim. Powell is a self-anointed preacher with a penchant for switchblade knives; a misogynist who is both attracted to and repulsed by women. He travels rural roads, preaching in small towns, and seems to believe he is doing God's work. The letters "L-O-V-E" are tattooed on one hand and the letters "H-A-T-E" on the other, which Powell uses as symbols in impromptu sermons. In one small town, police arrest Powell for driving a stolen car and sentence him to jail, unaware that he is a murderer.
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. Ben convinces them to keep the secret of where he has hidden the money: inside Pearl's rag doll. Immediately afterwards the police arrive and arrest Ben, and John is shocked by the way the police roughly pin down and overpower his father.
Harper and Powell share a cell where Powell, soon to be released, tries unsuccessfully to learn the location of the missing bank loot. Harper does not give away the entire secret, but lets slip enough to allow Powell to work out that Harper's children must know where the money is. Harper ends up executed for his crimes, leaving Powell to woo and marry Harper's widow, Willa, once Powell is set free from jail.
While Powell charms most of the townsfolk, Young John is the only one who doesn't trust him. John denies Powell 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 discovers that Powell is searching for the money despite his denying it earlier. However, the pious Willa believes he married her in order to show her God's light rather than get the money. Powell then murders her, dumps her body in the river, and covers it up with a story that she had abandoned him and the children for a life of sin.
So successful is this cover story that Powell retains the trust and sympathy of the townsfolk as a result; if anything, his position in the town becomes even more secure. Even when Birdie Steptoe, an elderly man who spends his days drinking on his riverboat and is friendly with John, discovers the drowned body, he chooses to keep the secret for fear that the town will blame him for it rather than the true killer. Nobody else in town is willing to take John's side against Powell, who as far as they are concerned is entirely innocent.
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, as he'd threatened to do, 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 breaks down, 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 Powell can have the cash if he wants it.
Powell is tried, convicted and sentenced for all his crimes. Several of the townsfolk previously depicted as being his staunchest defenders are shown shouting abuse at him from the public gallery and drinking. 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.
- Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell
- Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
- Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper
- Billy Chapin as John Harper
- Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl Harper
- James Gleason as Uncle "Birdie" Steptoe
- Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon, Willa's employer
- Don Beddoe as Walt Spoon, Icey's husband
- Peter Graves as Ben Harper
- Gloria Castillo as Ruby, one of Rachel's girls
- Paul Bryar as Bart the Hangman
Producer Paul Gregory read the novel The Night of the Hunter and decided to make a film about it, with his friend Charles Laughton as a director. 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. Laughton's directing style was supportive and respectful of the actors' input and several of the actors have said it was among their favorite professional experiences.
Laughton considered casting Gary Cooper as Harry Powell, who couldn't accept the role as being possibly detrimental to his career. Laurence Olivier and John Carradine also expressed interest in the role of the reverend.
Robert Mitchum was eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit." Mitchum promptly answered, "Present!"
Shelley Winters was cast as Willa Harper, the woman who is killed by Powell. Winters said that this was "the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave."
Laughton envisioned his wife Elsa Lanchester to play the role of Rachel Cooper. Jane Darwell, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead and Louise Fazenda were also considered. Lanchester, for reasons unknown to Laughton, turned down the role, suggesting silent movie legend Lillian Gish for the role instead. A doubtful Laughton went to New York for the purpose of watching films that Gish starred in. These included the shorts and feature films she made with pioneer D.W. Griffith. When Gish asked Laughton 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." 
Principal photography of The Night of the Hunter began in August 15 and ended in October 7, 1954. Mitchum originally suggested Laughton to shoot the film in authentic Appalachian locations but the director couldn't afford the budget to do on-location shooting. Besides, he wanted to create the film's unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathe, Republic studios and the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
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. 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. 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.
The Night of the Hunter was not a success with either audiences or critics at its initial release, and Laughton never directed another film. 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.
The Night of the Hunter was rated #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. It is among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.
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.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – #34
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
- Reverend Harry Powell – Villain #29
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes
- "Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand, left hand? 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." – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
- Burgess Meredith is credited as director of the film The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Laughton and Irving Allen also directed but are not credited.
- "Cahiers du Cinema"
- The Night of the Hunter: Not Noir http://www.filmsnoir.net.
- Callow, Simon (2000). "The night of the hunter". McFarland. ISBN 9780851708225.
- Oderman, Stuart (2000). "Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen". McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0644-5.
- Satola, Mark. Preview: A Rare Look Behind The Scenes Of The Night Of The Hunter
- "Treasures from the UCLA Film and Television Archive"
- Roger Ebert (November 24, 1996). "The Night of the Hunter (1955)". rogerebert.suntimes.com.
- "Cahiers du cinema: 100 most beautiful films in the world". 2008-11-04.
- The 500 Greatest Films Of All Time – The Night of the Hunter Empire.
- "Night of the Hunter (1991) TV Movie". May 19, 2012.
- 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.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: The Night of the Hunter (film)|
- The Night of the Hunter at the Internet Movie Database
- The Night of the Hunter at AllMovie
- The Night of the Hunter at the TCM Movie Database
- The Night of the Hunter at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Night of the Hunter analysis of film by Tim Dirks at The Greatest American Films
- The Night of the Hunter analysis of film by Harvey O'Brien
- The Night of the Hunter at Film Noir of the Week by Bruce Crowther
- The Night of the Hunter article by Margaret Atwood: "Why I Love Night Of The Hunter" at The Guardian (UK)
- The Night of the Hunter article by Robert Gitt: "The Hidden Hunter" at The Guardian (UK)
- The Night of the Hunter essay by Leonard Maltin on Gitt's presentation of extremely rare footage
- The Night of the Hunter article by Amber Grey: "Charles Laughton Directed A Masterpiece" at BellaOnline