“The Night of the Hunter” (1955) garners many accolades and praise for its spellbinding perfection. Like many classic film gems, at the time of the film’s release, it was not a critical nor a box office success. It is even more unfortunate that due to its public failure, Charles Laughton was heartbroken
and swore never to direct again.
Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, “The Night of the Hunter” stars Robert Mitchum as “Harry Powell,” a self-proclaimed preacher. It is when “Powell”’s prison cell-mate “Ben Harper” (Peter Graves) reveals to him that the money “Harper” stole is in fact hidden that “Powell” is intrigued toward finding the money. He finds out that “Harper”’s children, “John” and “Pearl” are
the only ones who know the money’s location. Their mother “Willa Harper” (Shelley Winters), overcome with conflicting emotions of her husband’s misdeeds, easily succumbs to Powell’s kind and religiously-disciplined nature. By the time she realizes how dangerous he really is, it is too late. The children escape from the mercenary preacher who hunts them down at the house of “Rachel Cooper” (Lillian Gish). “Cooper” is a devout Christian woman who takes in orphans and raises them as her own. She does everything she can to protect John and Pearl from Powell’s wrath.
Throughout the film “Powell” repeatedly croons the gospel lyric, “Leaning. . .Leaning. . .Leaning on the everlasting arm” as signal that he is closing in on his victim. Laughton’s use of Mitchum’s sullen singing voice is an interesting device which adds a layer of stunned fear to the darkness of “Powell”’s character.
Stanley Cortez’s cinematography is recognizable and highly regarded by film buffs and classic films fans alike who watch “The Night of the Hunter.” It was while Laughton was working on “Man of the Eiffel Tower” (1950) as an uncredited director, that Laughton developed a good working relationship with Cortez. When it came to directing “The Night of the Hunter,” Laughton hired Cortez to be his director of photography. The subtle light changes that set the eery, surreal mood to this terrifying story are astounding. The vaulted ceilings allow light to filter in and resemble the interior of a church when it is in fact a bedroom. In another poignant scene where “Powell” stalks “John” and “Pearl”’s house, a candlelight is held up to the patio screen. “Powell”’s shadow is clear
for the viewer. Once the candle is blown out, “Powell” has disappeared in the darkness once more.
In 2008 a documentary titled, “Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’” premiered at “UCLA’s Film and Television Archive Festival.” The documentary featured Laughton’s directing process as well as rare outtakes and omitted scenes. The cinematic and directorial genius of Charles Laughton in “The Night of the Hunter” begs one to wonder what great cinema audiences were
deprived of had Mr. Laughton continued to direct films.