Night of the Hunter (1955): Charles Laughton’s Stunning Directing Debut (and Only Film)

The first (and only) directorial effort of the distinguished British actor Charles Laughton, “The Night of the Hunter,” is one of the most impressive films of the 1950s, showing what a great filmmaker the noted British actor would have become had he pursued such a career.

Like other masterpieces, “Night of the Hunter” was misunderstood and dismissed when first released in 1955, during the post-WWII era. It took another decade and a new generation of critics, like Andrew Sarris (then at the Village Voice) to re-evaluate the film and place it in the right perspective. (When I was a student, the film played in revival houses as a cult item).

Working from a screenplay by James Agee, better known then as a film critic, who also scripted John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951), Laughton said he perceived the film as  “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” But the film is much more than that. Grim, dark and brooding, “Night of the Hunter” is film noir par excellence. Set in the rural south during the Great Depression, it’s an eerie tale of religious greed, children’s lost innocence, ominous sexuality and cold-blooded murder.

Stylistically, Laughton, collaborating with ace cinematographer Stanley Cortez, have used a mixture of visual styles, German Expressionism for sure, but also classic American cinema as defined by D. W. Griffith, with strong touches of the vocabulary of film noir, which was at its prime in the late 1940s and early 1950s. End result is an original film that can’t be compared to any other work—before or after it.

In one of the scariest and most masterful performances ever committed on American screen, Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, an all-American charming psychopath, an evil preacher named Harry Powell. Mitchum, one of the great actors of film noir, plays in this picture a charismatic villain in the mold of the elegant, seductive and scary Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotton, in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Mitchum’s part and interpretation would serve as inspiration for a new generation of crazy criminals played by De Niro, Pacino, Christopher Walken and others.

As a murderous preacher convinced that he’s carrying out the Lord’s wishes, Powell has the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, one letter per finger; the motif of the double runs throughout the film. Standing for all things evil, Mitchum’s Powell embodies a truly shocking identity of “A Man of God.”  He projects ferocious, threatening sexuality, and when he arrives into town, his very presence poses a threat to middle-class life and rural stability.  Early on, Powell addresses God: “Oh, Lord. How many widows has it been? Six? I’m tired, Lord.”

In the first reel, Powell courts, marries, and the murders Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in very short order. He then pursues two orphaned children across a sinister, barren Midwest, because they possess secretive knowledge about buried money. Lillian Gish is well cast as Rachel, the all-maternal, all-heart widow, who protects the town’s children.

A parable about loss of innocence and growing up fast, on one level “Night of the Hunter” depicts the worst nightmares children might experience about being abandoned, lacking love and protection, and being pursued by evil forces. The two children flee Powell’s Frankenstein-like rampages of Mitchum. They find love and shelter at the communal center held by of Rachel, a place full of homeless children, without parents or grown men as role models.

The film critic Michael Atkinson has pointed out that the film is dark and somber but lacks any overt or explicit social critique of American manners and mores. However, when you look beneath the surface, the text is replete with anxieties and phobias of the times. According to Mitchum, Laughton elevated the film’s fairy-tale in post-production, fearing the wrath of the Production Code as countercharge.

I have seen the film three times and some of its sharp images continue to haunt me, such as the vision of Shelley Winters’ corpse floating underwater, her hair waving in the drift, or of the two children hiding, in utmost fear of for their lives.

The running time of the black-and-white film is only 93 minutes. Over the years, there have been rumors of longer versions, though I have not been able to validate them.

As noted, initially, the film was a critical and box-office failure, but is now considered one of the best films of the 1950s.  It has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.

Robert Gitt’s 2002 docu Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter provides useful information, rushes and outtakes with Laughton off-camera.

Cast

Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)

Willa Harper (Shelley Winters)

Rachel (Lillian Gish)

Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden)

Ben Harper (Peter Graves)

John (Billy Chapin)

Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)

Birdie (James Gleason)

Walt Spoon (Don Beddobe)

Ruby (Gloria Castillo)

 

Credits

Produced by Paul Gregory

Directed by Charles Laughton

Screenplay: James Agee, based on the novel by Davis Grubb

Camera; Stanley Cortez

Editor: Robert Golden

Music: Walter Schumann

Art director: Hilyard Brown

F/X: Jack Rabin, Louis DeWitt

Costumes: Jerry Bos

 

Black-and-white

Running time: 93 Minutes