In the second edition of this series, we will take a look at one of my favorite Robert Mitchum movies—The Night Of The Hunter. This film was released in 1955 and is classified by some as a mystery, by some as a thriller, by some as film noir, and by others as scary. It is really a blend of all those categories.
It was based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb of the same name, utilizing the true events of an incident from 1932 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Robert Mitchum plays the Rev. Harry Powell, a so-called minister and a con-man who takes advantage of and swindles lonely women who have money. As we meet him he is sharing a prison cell with convicted bank robber and murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper has hidden the money from the robbery with his family and has convinced his children to not tell anyone where the $10,000 is hidden. The Rev. Powell learns of the hidden money from his cellmate and is determined to find the family and the money upon his release. Ben Harper is executed, leaving his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) a widow and the reverend’s next target. Though Willa falls for the eerie charms of Rev. Powell, the children do not. I will do my best to avoid spoilers.
The cast includes Billy Chapin as the young son John, Sally Jane Bruce as daughter Pearl, James Gleason as Uncle Birdie, and Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper. Agnes Moorehead, Grace Kelly, and Betty Grable were also considered for the role of Willa. The role of Rev. Harry Powell was offered to Gary Cooper, who turned it down for fear that such a role would have a negative impact on his career.
After you get to know Rev. Powell you might understand Cooper’s concern. Rev. Powell is a dark and creepy character. As you can see in the accompanying poster, he had the word LOVE tattooed on one hand, and HATE on the other.
Charles Laughton was the director and this was the only film he directed, though he directed many plays for Broadway. Laughton was also a very prolific actor (including Witness For The Prosecution). He was intrigued by the cinematic effects used in the older silent films—especially the use of light and dark in the shooting of the pictures. His first choice for the character of Rachel Cooper (who becomes the protector of the children) was his wife, Elsa Lanchester (famous for her role as the Bride Of Frankenstein). However, she turned down the role and suggested Lillian Gish.
Laughton started watching many of the silent films of Lillian Gish, and when she learned of this she asked him why. His answer to her was “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.” Lillian Gish made her first film in 1912 (An Unseen Enemy) and her last film appearance was in 1987 (The Whales Of August)–a span of 75 years in film.
The movie was filmed in black and white, which I think contributed to the dark and eerie mood of the film. The studio tried to get Laughton to film it in color, thinking that it would make the movie more marketable (remember, this is 1955) but he refused.
The film did not do well commercially and was panned by many critics at the time. This devastated Charles Laughton and he never directed another film. However, as time passed, the critics’ reviews of The Night Of The Hunter took a turn and it became a popular cult film. Television brought it to a new generation of adoring fans. Roger Ebert, the well-known film critic, wrote “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up… well after four decades.” The audience score on the Rotten Tomatoes site has the film listed at 90% and critics at 95%.
In 1992 the Library Of Congress selected Night Of The Hunter for preservation in the National Film Registry. It was remade as a TV movie in 1991 starring Richard Chamberlain as Rev. Harry Powell. The movie is available on several streaming services for a fee, but the Clark County Library has it available on DVD.
Keep an eye out for my next entry as we check out the Reel Classics.