Movie poster: Night of the Hunter
Movie poster: Night of the Hunter

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.

  • Ron grew up in Southeast Baltimore, spent three and a half years liv­ing in the High Desert in California, and came to Winchester when his VW Beetle broke down here on a cross-coun­try dri­ve to Vermont. He has lived here and worked as a social work­er since 1973. Though he retired in 2013, he remains active as a com­mu­ni­ty vol­un­teer on var­i­ous boards, coali­tions, and com­mit­tees. His pas­sions include the woods and nature, music, books, and clas­sic movies (espe­cial­ly Laurel & Hardy).