Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

"Beware of false prophets that come to you in sheep's clothing."

The Night of the Hunter
- Charles Laughton's only directorial effort - was a box-office flop thanks partly to a misguided advertising campaign and lukewarm reviews when released in 1955. Around the 1970s movie goers began to embrace foreign and more artistic films. The daring-for-it's-time thriller was reexamined by film buffs and grew into a cult classic. Today there's no doubt that Laughton's Night of the Hunter is considered a great film.

The depression-era story - told like a twisted fairy tale - is about a young boy trying to protect 10-thousand dollars hidden in his little sister's beloved doll. The money's from a bank robbery John's father (Peter Graves) pulled before being caught. Wounded, the young father hides the money just as the police arrive at the house. Ben Harper killed two men in the hold up and is eventually hanged for the crime. Young John swears an oath -right as the police arrive- to his father to keep the loot from everyone until he grows up. He's tested when a slick-speaking preacher - an ex-con and his dad's former cell mate - shows up at his doorstep looking for the cash.


The preacher (Robert Mitchum) woos John's vapid and love-starved widow mother (Shelley Winters) and a marriage is quickly performed. John knows the preacher is after the money but all the adults in his world either don't believe him or are too weak to help him. What follows is a story -told mostly from the point of view of John - about children trying to survive a dangerous adult world. The film becomes unsettling when the narrative switches between the child's view to the twisted reality of the cracked preacher.

Jeffrey Couchman's book, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Filmis a detailed story about how the film was made and the reaction to the now-classic movie. In it, Couchman mentions Mitchum - the coolest cat in film noir - was coached by Laughton to give a performance that ends up being a mix of Mitchum's film-noir toughness and more than a bit of Charles Laughton's physical acting and line delivery. Mitchum wanted to preacher to be even more sinister in the film. Laughton insisted he perform a few pratfalls and lighter comic moments. The two compromised and created a perfect balance. Preacher Harry Powell turns out to be Mitchum's greatest and most unexpected performances. Mitchum sings a lot in the movie and who could forget the chilling sing-song “Chil—dren?” chant at the top of the stairs?

The film based on Davis Grubb's first published book. Laughton considered the novel very visual and instructed screenwriter James Agee to create a script that would be as close to the novel as possible. Agee wrote a phone-book sized draft. Laughton - experienced with editing down large works when working on plays based on novels and his own one-man story-telling shows - whittled down the first draft into a shooting script. Laughton seems to have kept the movie true to the novel. Agee insisted Laughton get co-screenwriter credit but the director refused. Agee died before the film could be released.

Walter Schumann was hired to do the score. The music was written before the film was made. Like the film, the score is creepy and unforgettable. The soundtrack vinyl record - recently re-released on CD with Rózsa's The Lost Weekend score- isn't a soundtrack at all. It's Laughton, Mitchum and others telling a condensed version of the film over Schumann's unforgettable music. The album - sounding a bit like a radio program - is unique and showcases Laughton's great gift as a storyteller. Laughton was not unlike Orson Welles - a great teller of tales both behind the scenes or in front of a microphone.

The Night of the Hunter cast is solid from top to bottom. The children in the movie have been criticized by some as being weak actors. I disagree. Certainly John Harper's little sister Pearl is annoying and does occasionally look off camera. However, I find their raw performances to be better than the alternative. Nothing kills a thriller quicker than sticky sweet kids and weepy weddings. Instead Night of the Hunter has kids in it that seem real. Speaking of weddings, Shelley Winters as the preacher's bride is perfectly cast. Willa Harper's honeymoon turns torturous when her misogynist husband loudly rejects her advances. Winters can be grating - even this early into her career (watching her in The Big Knife is like sixty-grit sandpaper being rubbed on your toes)- but she hits all the right notes here showing lust, disappointment and shame in a brief scene. Her death scene - shot in an German expressionistic style in a bed room that's shaped like a church steeple and in a bed that resembles a tomb- is one of the best in the film. Finally the underwater shot of her lifeless body sitting in her sunken car with her long hair flowing like seaweed probably still gives people nightmares. (I have to admit it, after a recent viewing, the scene reminded me of Winters in the unfortunate The Poseidon Adventure.)

Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe play Willa's neighbors - the Spoons. Varden plays a busy body. She does all she can to get the preacher and Willa together - which turns into a fatal mistake. Walt Spoon suspects Harry Powell isn't all he seems to be but gets shouted down by wife Icey. Beddoe is in a lot of films (including The Killer is Loose and The Narrow Margin) but he usually ends up being invisible. Laughton seemed to have been generous to his cast. Even the smallest supporting roles have a bit of an edge to them. When Icey announces to the ladies at the church picnic, “When you've been married to a man for forty years you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning.” Don Beddoe's reaction is priceless.

Lillian Gish enters the picture about 2/3rds of the way through and almost steals the movie from Mitchum. She plays a woman who no only is the only true Christian in the film but also one strong enough to stand up to Harry Powell.

The most memorable image in the film is probably Mitchum's tattooed knuckles. L-O-V-E on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other. Silver and Ursini's Film Noiruses them on the cover of their handsome coffee-table book. Meatloaf had the same tattoos in Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bruce Springsteen makes mention of the the famous ink in his song “Cautious Man.” Today - even when Sunday school teachers can be spotted with “tramp stamps” on their backs - the knuckle tattoos are outrageous. Grubb used that physical feature in the book after remembering seeing a man with those actual tattoos years before. The publicity still of Mitchum outside of Rachel Cooper's house is familiar to any classic movie fan.

The film is a hard one to classify. It's part horror. Certainly, you can see some of Universal's Frankenstein in the movie. Mitchum looks like the monster with his outstretched arms chasing the children. Then there's the angry sanctimonious “Christian” torch-carrying mob lead by Icey Spoon near the end. Mitchum is hypnotic and sexy - just like Béla Lugosi in Dracula. The shotgun standoff at Rachel's farm is reminiscent of classic Westerns.

Would you call it film noir too? After reading Mr. Couchman's book (an excellent read) this week I emailed him that question.
“It’s probably fair to call it “noirish.” How’s that for an evasion? Well, it’s not quite an evasion, because the film both contains and lacks elements of noir. It has such film-noir characteristics as high-contrast lighting, an expressionistic use of shadows, and a psychopathic main character. But it also has a pastoral feel that is unlike noir, and it contains a character of pure goodness (Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Gish) who is alien to the corrupt, morally ambivalent world of noir. The happy ending is also not what you expect in a film noir. So I guess the final answer for me is . . . the film is part film noir.”

The film certainly makes a good case for film noir not being a genre but rather a style seen in many genres. If you look at it that way then I would definitely call it noir.

Stanley Cortez's camerawork should not be overlooked. The famed cinematographer makes the film look like a cross between Tom Sawyer, The Red House and Cape Fear. (trivia: Cortez worked on Black Tuesday (1954) also with Peter Graves playing a young prisoner that won't reach old age.)

Laughton instructed Cortez that he wanted the film to look like an old silent and, in parts, like a children's book. Laughton certainly took a risk making his first -and last - film a combination horror, suspense, children's story and even comedy. On top of that having Cortez shoot it in an expressionistic style and dealing with issues like religious hypocrisy probably made the film impossible for it to be marketed in theaters. Time, however, is usually kind to truly great films - regardless of their box office. This is one of the best.

Written by Steve-O



  1. I never understood why this movie is so revered. Its not a bad film. Now Dead Reckoning, that's another story. More Bogart. -Whit

  2. Steve-O--

    Thanks for the writeup one of the great--and also one of my favorite--films. I'd say that German expressionism of the silent era is the most pronounced visual influence on the film. Both Laughton (and Frankenstein's James Whale) would have seen a lot of German films before coming to America.

    Over the years, the need for categorization, the "is-it-or-isn't-it-a-noir", becomes less and less important to me. Great is great, period.

  3. I loved that film! I'm so sorry that Laughton never got to know the praise that he is now getting.

  4. I've always had great affection for the film as a Mitchum fan, but also because it takes place in West Virginia where I grew up. There's an aerial shot of the Moundsville Prison (often regarded back then as the most inhumane in the United States) in the beginning -- where you can easily see my grandma's house in the frame.

    As for the noir question, I agree that it just isn't relevant with this film. Obviously, no disrespect intended to film noir, but I think it diminishes this a bit to try to force it into that or any other category. If ever a picture stood alone....

    Great essay.

  5. The "lie there and think of canning" scene made me spit out my drink.

    I agree that Gish is superb in this film.


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