NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid the $10,000 he'd stolen in a robbery.
Night of the Hunter is a film I’m familiar with, having watched it several times over the years, but I’m invariably astonished by its dark beauty, perfect performances, and the sheer brilliance of its storytelling. It’s always better than I remember it being! The original meaning of the word ‘sublime’ was something possessed of a ‘terrible beauty’ that stirred the emotions into a state akin to fear. In modern usage, ‘sublime’ simply means an extreme beauty, close to perfection. Either definition is applicable to this genre defying mid-century masterpiece that remains just as engrossing and effectively shocking over six decades on.
So, this high-definition digital restoration, from the original camera negatives, is a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection’s boutique Blu-rays, presented in a handsome double disc package packed with excellent extras. No doubt, it’ll be snapped-up by existing fans who won’t need to read this review to convince them! However, I hope it helps bring it to a new audience, as this gripping psychological thriller, exquisitely shot in beautiful black and white, with a twisted hint of humour, seems fresher than ever.
Charles Laughton had already directed for the stage, but this was his feature debut and turned out to be his only film as director. It was a late career move for the renowned actor, who would only appear in a handful of films after, including one of his most memorable lead performances as Sir Wilfrid Roberts in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
As an eloquent discourse on good and evil, Night of the Hunter appealed to his turbulent relationship with religion and concepts of sin he’d wrestled with all his life. A ‘lapsed Catholic’, expelled from a Jesuit college for “indecent behaviour during a religious service,” Laughton became known for his reading tours in which he performed rousing passages from The Bible alongside the works of Jack Kerouac. He enjoyed a loving and happy marriage with Elsa Lanchester before his ‘closet’ homosexuality morphed that into a deep and lasting platonic friendship. Some critics have suggested he saw something of himself in Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), the Bible-thumping murderous psychopath that energises The Night of the Hunter’s narrative… but that’s rather a stretch!
Davis Grubb based his 1953 novel on the real case of Harry Powers (an alias of Herman Drenth), who was a serial killer during the Great Depression long before the term existed to label him. He specialised in exploiting young, widowed mothers whom he’d kill along with their children, after appropriating their savings. Powers was executed in 1932 for the murder of five people, but he’s thought to have been responsible for many more. In the novel, he’s recast as an ex-convict turned self-proclaimed ‘hellfire’ preacher, instead of a carpet-sweeper salesman. Several episodes from his life of crime are paraphrased, including covering up disappearances by sending letters explaining missing families had gone away for an extended vacation or to visit distant relatives.
However, if one wants a gritty docudrama that goes into morbid, procedural details, look elsewhere. The film’s pervading feel of a magical fable is hinted in the rather surreal opening sequence involving the disembodied head of Lillian Gish telling a Biblical story to an array of children’s faces hovering among stars. Don’t worry, though, that’ll make sense much later in the movie as it was scripted as the closing shot.
There’s an establishing scene of some children discovering the body of a woman on the steps of a fruit cellar just before we meet the perpetrator, Harry Powell as he’s driving along a country road, cheerily chatting with God about money provided by lonely widows, and how God can’t object to the killings as there are plenty in The Bible. The film’s underlying dark humour thus sets a tone that will help to elevate the story from its potential for sordid grimness that it admirably sidesteps throughout.
Though there are passages in which the film gets almost unbearably intense, it never descends into dreariness and is one of the few that can deal with such dark subject matter and remain entertaining without trivialising the issues. The only close contender might be To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which also manages to mitigate such horrors by letting us view them through the eyes of childhood innocence.
Much is made of Robert Mitchum’s amazing central performance, and it’s certainly an essential component of the film’s success. Along with a frankly similar character in Cape Fear (1961), it ranks among Mitchum’s best. There’s no denying he had great screen presence, but that’s not the same as being a great actor. Usually, he either didn’t really act but played it so low key it came across as naturalism, or he basically played himself. But here, he’s a revelation and definitely wearing the mantel of another persona. It’s not Mitchum and it’s not naturalistic. It’s almost supernatural and pushing toward expressionism, which fits perfectly with the overall tone. Immediately, there’s little doubt who the villain is and, it’s clear he’s not wholly rational, making him doubly dangerous.
Next, we’re introduced to the protagonists of the piece, young John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), at a pivotal point in their lives as their father (Peter Graves), pistol in hand, arrives home with $10,000 in stolen cash. The police are hot on his trail, so he barely has time to stuff the cash inside little Pearl’s dolly and make the siblings swear to never tell a soul. He makes John promise to use the money to build a better life than he’d managed to provide for them. The children then have to helplessly witness their dad wrestled to the ground and cuffed. When John ineffectually pleads “don’t… don’t,” we suddenly realise how emotionally involved we’ve become in just a few minutes! All down to the exemplary performances. By this time, Billy Chapin was an established child actor, and here he was fresh off the set of Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955) in which he played Victor Mature’s son.
Turns out that John and Pearl’s father is far from a clean-cut good guy and killed two people in the robbery. As he awaits execution, his cellmate just happens to be a man calling himself Reverend Harry Powell, who’s doing a little time for car theft. Harper never lets on where he hid the stolen money, even though Powell spends the nights whispering to him, trying to get him to talk in his sleep. However, on his release, Powell seeks out the widow Harper, Willa (Shelley Winters). and inveigles himself into her life, eventually engineering their marriage and becoming John and Pearl’s stepfather…
The helplessness of the two children trapped in an adult world where they know something that no one will believe builds into a palpable, pulse-accelerating terror. Things worsen for the children as their mother seems to believe anything Powell tells her over what the children say and even what she overhears for herself. The already sinister plot turns down an even darker avenue and, inevitably, John and Pearl are forced to flee together with Powell in pursuit.
Their escape down the river on their father’s old fishing skiff is a piece of classic cinema that manages to be one of the most beautiful and magical whilst simultaneously contrasting innocence and experience. It conjures the unreal atmosphere of a fairy tale, a dreamy sequence amidst the nightmare. The animals on the riverbanks, pretty rabbits and noble owls, have a beauty that belies their predator-prey dynamics. The field of sheep they drift by in the night remind us of the Lamb of God, the wool industry, and Sunday roasts. Yes, humans are also part of that dynamic, and sometimes we prey upon our own species! A simply stunning piece of pure cinema. I cannot overstate how gorgeous and haunting this sequence is, and how creepy the song sung by little Pearl, about the ‘pretty fly’, is in its context.
Whilst on the subject of music, the score by Walter Schumann plays an integral part and contains bold contrasts between the strident, demonic, four-note theme for Powell and the angelic, choral music to suggest the innocence and vulnerability of the children. Afterall, that’s the core of what the film is about: opposing dualities, honesty and deception, youth and age, the eternal battle between good and evil, or as Powell’s tattooed hands put it, L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E.
It’s been pointed out, originally by Laughton himself, I believe, that the river is a major character in the film and the saviour of the children. Mighty rivers, central to the modern mythology of the Deep South, are neither good nor evil but forces of nature that can work with or against human endeavours. This famous sequence is the most overtly Expressionistic part of the film, with simplistic sets that exploit silhouette and shadow brilliantly, including a stunning farm set with a looming barn in which the siblings shelter for the night. The narrative interplay of light and dark makes The Night of the Hunter one of the most effective and unusual examples of the film noir style. It also harks back to the genre’s progenitor, German Expressionism. Laughton was intentionally invoking the power of the silent era, the main reason he wanted Lillian Gish in a starring role.
Cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, was already a veteran who had shot The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) for Orson Welles, the romantic-supernatural portmanteau, Flesh and Fantasy (1943), and had previously worked with Charles Laughton in his first, uncredited, foray as director when he replaced Burgess Meredith to complete the inspector Maigret mystery, The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950).
It’s the flight down river that segues into the climatic final act as the fortunes of John and Pearl are changed by their chance meeting with Rachel (Lillian Gish), who takes the foundlings under her wing. Welcoming them into her informal orphanage, she offers them a chance to trust others and regain respect for themselves… Rachel is the angelic antithesis to the demonic Powell, so we know that the story will lead to a climatic confrontation because the Preacher won’t give up whilst they still have Pearl’s doll and the secret it holds. Will their newfound hope and happiness prevail?
On release the film received lukewarm receptions from cinemagoers and critics alike. Seems it was just too much unlike anything else they’d seen, and they couldn’t get a handle on it. Many reviewers panned it for being too pretentious and unbelievable despite it being, fairly faithfully, based on real events. They just couldn’t take such poetic, magical realism sitting next to something so real and challenging. Some objected to the use of comedy, which really isn’t that obtrusive, but found making light of so serious a subject distasteful.
Others dismissed Mitchum’s performance as OTT and unconvincing and, to some extent, they’re correct. They were just missing the point that he was cleverly portraying a character who was roleplaying a part intended to dupe the gullible. It takes a special genius to play a role where the character is acting something they’re not as a cover for a deeper deception. Apparently, Mitchum was so invested in his part that he demanded that screenwriter James Agee visit the set to explain a particularly controversial scene and discuss his character’s motivations.
Known as a book and film critic for both Time and Nation magazines through the 1940s, James Agee had been turning out scripts for many years, including a post-apocalyptic drama for Charlie Chaplin which remained unproduced until adapted for the stage as Tramp’s New World in 2015 and re-imagined for a feature film, currently in post-production.
The docudrama The Quiet One (1948), for which Agee wrote the dialogue and narration, was his first screenplay to be made. It told the true story about a deeply troubled 10-year-old boy of African-American background and his transformation at the progressive Wiltwyck Reform School in New York, which was to become a cause célèbre, championed by civil rights activists from the 1950s onward. The film was well-received, garnering two Academy Award nominations, for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ and ‘Best Original Screenplay’. As The Night of the Hunter would, it dealt with the social issues surrounding juvenile crime and children surviving terrible hardship. It’s since been recognised as a landmark in bringing discussions around equality, black identity, and mental health into the broader public arena.
On the back of this sudden, seemingly long-overdue recognition, Agee was hired to adapt C.S Forester’s 1935 novel to be filmed by John Huston as The African Queen (1951). The classic, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, received four Oscar nominations including ‘Best Screenplay’ for Agee, but only Bogart took home a statuette, for ‘Best Actor’.
Agee’s next script was an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s 1898 short story The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, for the anthology film Face to Face (1952), and by the time he was contracted to write The Night of the Hunter, based on Grubb’s novel, he was commanding a respectable fee of $30,000. Alas, he never had time to enjoy his success, as he died of a heart attack, thought to be related to chronic alcoholism, before the movie’s release.
Though the film itself proved too controversial for Academy Award consideration, Agee was posthumously awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for his unfinished autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which has several close thematic parallels. It tells the story of his own father’s death in a car accident and deals with the repercussions upon his widowed mother and her two young children in Bible-belt Tennessee. It also tackles conflicts of faith and atheism and features an alcoholic uncle, reflected in The Night of the Hunter by Uncle Birdie Steptoe (James Gleason). So, when adapting Grubb’s novel, Agee would’ve had a deeper understanding of the story’s setting and emotional core than most!
The author’s literary agent had sent Grubb’s manuscript to theatrical Producer Paul Gregory who was working on the stage play of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which was to be directed by his close friend, Charles Laughton. Both Gregory and Laughton were impressed with the book and purchased the film rights. This would prove to be a breakthrough for both as Gregory had never produced for the screen and Laughton had never, officially, directed a film.
Laughton began developing the script with David Grubb but they agreed that the author was too close to his own material and also lacked screenwriting experience. United Artists suggested James Agee for the job as he already had experience in writing about the Depression in the South. Grubb remained integral to the creative process, at least during pre-production, and contributed drawings to the storyboards.
In less than three months, Agee had completed his script which ended up just shy of 300 pages. It’s been estimated that if filmed in its entirety, the movie would’ve run well-over five hours. So, Laughton edited out anything superfluous and honed it down to a story that focussed on the two orphans and told the story from their perspective. It seems that Laughton’s ‘rewrite’ was more a task of curating, as most of the scenes in the finished film can be related back to scenes in Agee’s original adaptation.
Throughout development, Paul Gregory ran several drafts of the script past the Production Code Administration, who’d raised concerns about the topics to be covered. They objected mostly to a preacher being the villain. So, dialogue was introduced to emphasise that Powell was a conman only pretending to be a self-styled preacher, and not an ordained minister of any recognised faith. Agee and Laughton maintained that the premise of using trust to manipulate others required the villain to be a person who engenders such trust, simply because of who they appear to be. This would streamline storytelling and also makes a valid point about the abuse of any social standing perceived as being higher simply because of race, class, gender, political position, etc.
The MPA also objected to the use of the word ‘whore’, which wasn’t allowed, but Laughton got round that little problem by using the phrase “you whores of Babylon,” which was allowed to stay in the final cut because it’s a Bible quote. Laughton also manages to get some of the more intense scenes through to final version by tempering them with humour.
Nevertheless, it courted plenty of controversy on release. The Catholic Legion of Decency decreed that it had morally objectionable content in its negative depiction of marriage. It wasn’t only the reactionary Catholics that it upset either, the Protestant Motion Picture Council urged a boycott claiming that it would cause offense to any person of faith. Lloyd Binford, a chief film censor and outspoken white supremacist, imposed an outright ban in Memphis and Tennessee stating that it was the “rawest” film he’d ever seen and unfit for public exhibition. When later asked to explain what he’d meant by ‘raw’ he admitted he’d never viewed the film at all, but just didn’t like the idea of it. In the UK it was given an X certificate, for adults only.
Night of the Hunter was a box office flop, which meant that Laughton was never offered another film to direct—which was a great loss to cinema. Producer Paul Gregory also found it difficult to continue transitioning from stage to screen and only produced one other feature film, the Raoul Walsh war epic The Naked and the Dead (1958). The principal cast felt no ill effects, though. Mitchum had already made more than 50 films and would make another 60 or so, acting right up to his death in 1997. Likewise, Lillian Gish, screen star of the silent age, would also enjoy a long career spanning seven decades until her final appearance in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August in 1987. Billy Chapin, definitely a precocious talent, had a short yet prolific career racking-up more than 30 appearances in under 15 years, but never managed to make a successful transition as an adult actor.
It took a while, but The Night of the Hunter gradually accrued a cult following and, decades later, it’s dignity, power, and beauty were widely recognised in retrospect. Harry Powell’s L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E knuckle tattoos have become genuinely iconic, referenced in popular culture from songs such as Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”, to cartoons. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi has said it’s his all-time favourite film and his character, The Reverend Jack Cheese, is a parody of Powell, only with P-I-T-Y and S-E-L-F-P-I-T-Y tattooed on his hands… and Stimpy’s pet ID tattoo is LOVE / HATE on the inside of his lips! Homages have also been included in numerous films and TV shows, from Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974) to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). It was even remade for television in 1991, with Richard Chamberlain as Harry Powell…
In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected for preservation by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. In 2007, the prestigious film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma rated it as one of the most beautiful films of all time, and in 2008 ranked it second in a listing of the best films, with Citizen Kane (1941), predictably, in prime position.
Even after all these years, The Night of the Hunter remains more intense and effectively frightening than most horror films by tapping our own memories of childhood dreams and nightmares. For the time it was made, its tackles astonishingly harsh topics. There are big social issues associated with the Depression, such as child poverty. Also, five years ahead of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a serial killer as a central character was certainly unusual. As were children as the protagonists in a film not aimed at that age group. However, the perfect balance of nightmarish situation with dreamy fairy tale imagery, natural realism with Noir expressionism, subtle heart-rending performances with brash almost baroque posturing, fuse to create a film that still creates its own world unlike any other and continues to engross new audiences.
USA | 1955 | 92 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
director: Charles Laughton.
writers: James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb).
starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce & Gloria Castillo.