#379) The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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#379) The Night of the Hunter (1955)

OR “Rev! Run!”

Directed by Charles Laughton

Written by James Agee. Based on the novel by Davis Grubb.

Class of 1992

The Plot: Serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) travels around 1930s West Virginia posing as a reverend, marrying gullible women, and murdering them for their money. While serving a stint in prison, Powell’s cellmate Ben (Peter Graves) mentions he stole $10,000 in a bank robbery, but won’t reveal where the money is. After Ben is executed, Powell is released and zeroes in on Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). The new Mrs. Powell knows nothing about the money, but her children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) were sworn to secrecy by their late father. Let’s just say that Powell and his stepchildren have a L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E relationship.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “occasionally outrageous dark humor, bucolic settings contrasted with gothic images, and an unsettling child’s-eye perspective.” An essay by film critic Peter Rainer is the movie’s defense against audiences “who think they’re smarter than this film”. And if there’s one thing that pisses me off, it’s film criticism that boils down to “you just didn’t get it”.

But Does It Really?: Sometimes I get a sixth sense about a movie on this list, where something doesn’t feel right, and I got that with “Hunter”. Don’t get me wrong, I still found the film effectively suspenseful, but ultimately I was thrown by the film’s noir-by-way-of-German-Expressionism aesthetic, somewhat watered down subject matter, and at times uncertain rookie director. The aforementioned Rainer essay admits the film can be “baffling” if you don’t “get the hang of it”, and that was me on this viewing. “Night of the Hunter” is quite bizarre, but admittedly it’s that bizarreness that has helped it endure for 65 years. I’ll give “Night of the Hunter” a minor classic designation, and move on.

Everybody Gets One: Paul Gregory was a Broadway producer whose credits included several plays directed by Charles Laughton. Once Gregory obtained the film rights to the novel “The Night of the Hunter”, he convinced Laughton to make his directorial film debut with the project. “Night of the Hunter” is the only film from Paul Gregory Productions.

Other notes

  • For those of you unfamiliar with Charles Laughton: By 1955 Laughton was already an accomplished stage and film actor; winning an Oscar in 1933 for his performance as Henry VIII. Despite a film career that includes “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Witness for the Prosecution”, Laughton’s only NFR appearances as an actor are his supporting turn in “Spartacus”, and his lead work in the more obscure “Ruggles of Red Gap”.
  • That…is a weird opening. But at least they picked a nice night to shoot it.
  • This is the movie where Peter Graves, while sitting on the bottom bunk, punches Robert Mitchum in the face, causing him to fall out of the top bunk. How is that not the moment everyone remembers from this film?
  • Turns out Robert Mitchum has a lovely singing voice. A few years later he even recorded…a Calypso album?
  • The L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E monologue is a classic for a reason, but is the Bible really this discriminatory against the left hand? I thought the Lord loved a lefty!
  • I’m used to seeing Shelley Winters in her later, campier years (looking at you, “Pete’s Dragon”), so it’s great to see her turn in a subtle, complex performance. Winters spoke fondly of her time on the film, and calls her Willa, “the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave.”
  • Stories about Laughton not getting on with the child actors and having Robert Mitchum direct their scenes are completely false; Mitchum made them up for his autobiography. Many cast and crewmembers (including Mitchum) have called Laughton a delight to work for, and have cited “Hunter” as one of their favorite filmmaking experiences.
  • [Spoilers] The underwater shot of Willa’s corpse is amazing. Turns out that’s a dummy with a mask of Shelley Winters’ face, which is a little disappointing because Shelley Winters is an excellent swimmer.
  • For proof of Laughton’s silent film influence, look no further than the iris zoom on the kids hiding in the cellar. It may be the only shot of its kind in the sound era.
  • Yeah, the boat ride down the river is where the film loses me. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the movie takes a hard right into expressionism territory. And did they rent every animal for that shoot? Frogs, rabbits, horses; I was waiting for an elephant to cross the shot.
  • “Don’t he never sleep?” Okay, movie you got me on that one. Well played.
  • To prepare for his first directing gig, Charles Laughton studied every D.W. Griffith film he could get his hands on. It was during this process that the idea of casting Griffith staple Lillian Gish as Rachel came about. Gish’s performance worked best for me, effectively bringing out both Rachel’s well-worn toughness and angelic sweetness.
  • Turns out the film’s biggest surprise is reserved for the end: It was a Christmas movie this whole time!
  • And for anyone who didn’t get the film’s message to “save little children”, Lillian Gish beats you over the head with it about eight times in the last scene. Like The Dude 40 years later, the children abide.

Legacy

  • “The Night of the Hunter” was met with mixed critical reactions and mediocre box office returns in 1955, making it difficult for Paul Gregory to fund his next film, an adaptation of “The Naked and the Dead”. Charles Laughton became disillusioned with film directing, and opted to return to the theater. “Hunter” is his sole film as a director.
  • Despite its rough beginnings, “The Night of the Hunter” eventually found successes on late night TV and at film school screenings from cinema snobs who love them a good “Dr. Caligari” reference.
  • In the early ‘70s, Charles Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester donated Laughton’s notes from the “Hunter” production, as well as hours of outtakes, to the American Film Institute. The footage was handed to UCLA, and the restored outtakes became the 2002 documentary “Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’”.
  • Like many a classic movie, “The Night of the Hunter” has a TV Movie remake that is only remembered via its connection to the original. Starring Richard Chamberlain, “Night of the Hunter” aired on ABC in 1991, and hasn’t been heard from since.
  • Interestingly enough, the main reference point from “Night of the Hunter” throughout the years has been the “L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E” tattoos. Those two words have shown up on quite a few knuckles in the last 65 years, most memorably in “Do the Right Thing”.

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