“Dream, little one, dream,
Dream, my little one, dream.
Oh, the hunter in the night
Fills your childish heart with fright.
Fear is only a dream.
So dream, little one, dream.”
Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)
DIRECTED BY: Charles Laughton
PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.
- The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but was long out-of-print until a 2014 reprint.
- Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
- Gary Cooper was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
- Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
- This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
- Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
- In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
- Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.
Original trailer for Night of the Hunter
COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical parable, and an Expressionist talkie, with a pinch of social realism thrown in. The movie’s style weaves between harsh reality (the cruel taunts of schoolchildren towards new orphans) and lyrical stylization (a river that suddenly becomes transparent enough to see the horror sunken at its bottom)—though it leans towards the latter. The Depression-era story is odd, but sadly believable (it was, after all, loosely based on real events). The telling is often strange and unexpected. The style hearkens back to silent films (note the use of the iris, which would appear square and old fashioned in 1955), but the subject matter—sexual repression, religious hypocrisy, child abuse—was too hot and downbeat for the tastes of the times. The result is a nightmare that perhaps could have only emerged in the repressed 1950s. No chef has been able to reproduce Laughton’s recipe for success in Night of the Hunter.
It’s impossible to discuss The Night of the Hunter without mentioning Robert Mitchum’s absolute embodiment of the terrifying Reverend Harry Powell, one of the screen’s greatest villains. Powell’s relentless scoundrel is the dominant figure in the movie; even when he’s offscreen, his shadow haunts the others (“don’t he never sleep?,” wonders John). The knuckles of his hands—one reads “L-O-V-E,” the other “H-A-T-E”—and the way he wrestles them to demonstrate the “story of good and evil” imply a divided character, but in fact, the Preacher doesn’t struggle with love and hate. Hate won long ago; he has no love left. Powell is pure evil, complete psychopathic malice untainted by any concern for others. What is especially frightening about him is that, although he deceives the outside world, he truly believes he is doing God’s work. He is certain that the Lord hates unchaste women, and that the Almighty has sent him $10,000 so he can continue to do His cleansing work. Although he despairs at times (watching a fully-clothed burlesque dancer bump and grind, he laments, “there are too many of them… you can’t kill the world”), he remains steadfast in hunting down his prey, propelled by the wicked strength of the true believer. Mitchum’s angelic face and his calm, sanctimonious baritone (“leaning, leaning…”) are the sheep mask worn by the wolf. His Preacher is the standard-bearer for sex-despising Puritanism, taken to obscene lengths. Ironically, he himself has enormous sexual charisma; both in the physical presence of the dashing Mitchum, dressed like a gentleman farmer with a formal black string tie and broad-billed hat, and in his macho confidence as Harry Powell, whose veneer of class and social authority immediately makes him the most eligible bachelor in whatever tiny Appalachian river town he pops up in.
Harry Powell’s internal complexities don’t trouble his primary prey, John Harper, very much, however. To John, the Preacher is simply evil, a man who not only wants to steal his birthright and kill his mother, but also to trick or force him into breaking the vow he gave to his dead father. John is one of the few characters who immediately and instinctively sees through the Reverend’s charades, and he turns out to be as resourceful at eluding the Preacher as Powell is relentless in pursuit. Although Powell never lands a blow on a child, Night of the Hunter is perhaps the most frightening depiction of child abuse and betrayal imaginable. Mitchum’s character may be outlandish, but the broad scenario of a wicked stepfather is all too real. A child can easily come under the authority of someone who doesn’t care for him, or who even actively wishes him harm, and a mother may be fooled by her own loneliness and gullibility into abandoning her vigilance in protecting her children. The ickiest moments in Hunter occur when John’s young sister Pearl, who may not remember her real father too well anymore, gladly leaps into the open arms of Powell (who, we know from his opening monologue, loathes “lacy things, things with curly hair”). John must protect not only himself, but also his baby sister, who lacks his awareness of danger and adult duplicity. Mitchum dominates the screen, but this is John Harper’s story, the story of innocents and how they endure and fight back against the evils inflicted on them by adults.
John and Pearl’s flight downriver, which suggests the escapes of two Biblical children, Moses and Jesus, as well as America’s own Huck Finn and Jim, functions as a beautiful idyll. It is the most dreamlike and unreal portion of the movie. The sets may be expressionist, but this scene is impressionistic, a child’s memory full of big gestures and enlarged details that don’t fit together in logical sequence but paint a picture. It begins with a waterlogged Powell howling in frustration as the river’s current carries the children out of his reach; the soundtrack blends his scream into an angelic choir’s hum, which itself fades into a tinkling harp glissando. Pearl opens her mouth and an adult soprano’s voice emerges, singing a nursery song about two baby flies: “one night these two pretty children flew away, flew away…” The skiff floats downriver, and as John lies sleeping, dreaming, we see giant natural elements in the foreground: a spiderweb, then a frog, the traditional predators of the fly. The water gleams in the studio moonlight, and the stars are a backdrop of Christmas lights twinkling above a painted glow on the horizon. The nighttime sets are highly artificial and obviously shot on a stage; in contrast, the scenes of Powell’s pursuit, and the daylight shots of the skiff on the river, are shot out in nature. This suggests that the sleep and dreams brought about at night are a respite from the children’s woes. This temporary peace is as welcome for the audience’s frazzled nerves as it is to Pearl and John.
Rachel, the orphan-harboring mother hen played by Lillian Gish, is introduced in the third act as the foil for Reverend Powell. In the film’s theology, she represents true Christianity, and she fulfills the Preacher’s earlier prophecy: “it’s Love that won, and old left hand Hate is down for the count.” There is an Old Testament/New Testament duality to the Rachel/Powell duel. Powell worships a vengeful God, not a loving one: he believes God doesn’t mind killings because “there’s plenty of killings in your book.” “The Lord God Jehovah will guide my hand in vengeance,” he tells her, using the Old Testament nomenclature. Preacher Powell never mentions Jesus, a fact that is explicitly brought to light when the two opponents spontaneously harmonize a hymn: as he has throughout the film, Powell sings “leaning on the everlasting arms,” but Rachel counters with, “leaning on Jesus…”
Night of the Hunter introduces itself as a dream: the first words we hear are the theme song lyrics (“dream, little one, dream”), and the first shot is of children’s bodyless heads in a field of stars as Lillian Gish recalls Bible verses. Although the movie gives us lots to think about and generates powerful empathy for its tiny protagonists, it’s the dreamlike images (and Mitchum’s iconic performance) that have given it it’s enduring power over the years. The shadow of the Preacher’s head appearing on the children’s wall as John is telling his sister a bedtime story (his silhouette hat pops up just as John says, “the bad men came back…”) The chapel-like composition as Powell stands over Willa in the vaulted bedroom as she lies still as a corpse with her arms folded over her chest. The shadow play appearance of the unditchable Reverend on horseback on the horizon as John watches from the barn (achieved with false perspective—it’s actually a dwarf riding a pony behind a screen). Hair entangling with seaweed, in one of the most beautiful underwater shots ever captured on film. And of course, that magnificent float down that dreamy river, witnessed only by frogs, bunnies and the stars.
Although cinephiles may weep for all the movies Charles Laughton never made, in a way it is appropriate that Night of the Hunter is his only directorial effort. It cements this masterpiece’s singularity and highlights its legendary qualities. A larger-than-life movie should have a larger-than-life backstory and a mythology of its own.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A weird and intriguing endeavor to put across something more in the way of a horror story involving children than the mere menace of a bogeyman…”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“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.”–Danny Pearry, “Cult Movies 3” (1988)
IMDB LINK: Night of the Hunter (1955)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Night of the Hunter (1955) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion Night of the Hunter home page includes the trailer, a clip, a “three reasons” video, and four essays
Night of the Hunter (1955) – Overview – Turner Classic Movie’s page has some basic information on the film, the trailer, four clips, an introduction to the film from Rose MacGowan, and shows the next date the movie is scheduled to run on the network
Night of the Hunter (1955) – This three page overview of the film for American Movie Classics contains background material and a detailed plot synopsis
The Night of the Hunter Movie Review (1955) – Roger Ebert’s essay on Night of the Hunter for his “Great Movies” series
Why I Love Night of the Hunter – Novelist Margaret Atwood’s insightful appreciation of the film
The Night of the Hunter (1955) – The chapter of Bruce Crowther’s biography “Mitchum: The Film Career of Robert Mitchum” that deals with The Night of the Hunter
Watching the River: Mise en Scène and Safe Space in The Night of the Hunter – Detailed analysis of the river escape sequence by Bryan Wuest for Mediascape, with numerous illustrative sound and video clips
dvd review: Discovery: The Night of the Hunter – Leonard Maltin reports on a screening of the outtakes and rushes of the film documenting Laughton’s work with the actors (now included as an extra on the Criterion Collection edition of the film)
“The Night of the Hunter (BFI Film Classics)” – Simon Callow’s analysis for the British Film Institute
“Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter” – A “behind the scenes” account; the author interviewed original novelist Davis Grubb, Mitchum and Gish, and cinematographer Stanley Cortez
The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film – Another book length analysis, by Jeffrey Couchman; confirms James Agee’s authorship of the screenplay
DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection, naturally, offers the definitive, remastered release of Night of the Hunter (buy). Extras include an audio commentary supplied by film historians and second-unit director Terry Sanders; numerous interviews; a clip of Shelly Winters and Peter Graves on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (they re-enact a deleted scene!); a 15-minute BBC-produced mini-documentary; a gallery of sketches by Davis Grubb; and the usual collectible booklet with written essays. The most substantial bonus, which gets a DVD to itself, is two-and-a-half hour “alternate feature” Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”, which consists of alternate takes and behind-the-scenes footage, with each take appearing in the same order it did in the film. This footage gives insight into Laughton’s direction and his method of working with actors.
The Blu-ray (buy) comes with the same features all on one disc.
Night of the Hunter can also be seen (sans special features) via video-on-demand (rent or buy on-demand).
(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who described it as, “A little bit of love. A little bit of hate. A whole lotta weird by the time Reverend Powell is chasing the kiddies through the backwoods and swamps.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)