The Night of the Hunter (film)

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The Night of the Hunter
Nightofthehunterposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCharles Laughton
Produced byPaul Gregory
Screenplay byJames Agee
Charles Laughton
Based onthe novel The Night of the Hunter 
by Davis Grubb
StarringRobert Mitchum
Shelley Winters
Lillian Gish
Music byWalter Schumann
CinematographyStanley Cortez
Editing byRobert Golden
StudioPaul Gregory Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • July 26, 1955 (1955-07-26) (premiere)
  • August 26, 1955 (1955-08-26) (Los Angeles)
Running time93 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$795,000
 
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The Night of the Hunter
Nightofthehunterposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCharles Laughton
Produced byPaul Gregory
Screenplay byJames Agee
Charles Laughton
Based onthe novel The Night of the Hunter 
by Davis Grubb
StarringRobert Mitchum
Shelley Winters
Lillian Gish
Music byWalter Schumann
CinematographyStanley Cortez
Editing byRobert Golden
StudioPaul Gregory Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • July 26, 1955 (1955-07-26) (premiere)
  • August 26, 1955 (1955-08-26) (Los Angeles)
Running time93 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$795,000

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller film directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.[1] The film is based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, adapted for the screen by James Agee and Laughton. Its plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer who uses his charms to woo an unsuspecting widow and her two children in an attempt to steal a fortune hidden by the woman's dead husband. The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers, hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

The film's lyric and expressionistic style sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and it has influenced later directors such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Rob Zombie, and Spike Lee.

In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Plot[edit]

In 1930s West Virginia, along the Ohio River, Ben Harper is sentenced to hang for his part in a robbery in which two men were killed. Before he is caught he hides the stolen money, trusting only his son John with the money's location. John has a much younger sister, Pearl. Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer and self-appointed preacher with the two words "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed across the knuckles of his right and left hands, shares a prison cell with Harper. He tries to get Harper to tell him where he hid the money before his execution, but the only clue he gets is a Bible verse Harper mutters in his sleep: "And a little child shall lead them."

Convinced that Harper told his children the secret, Powell woos and marries Harper's widow, Willa. Willa does not know her new husband's motive and believes her marriage will lead to her salvation. Powell asks the children about the money when they are alone, but they reveal nothing. John is suspicious of Powell and protective of his sister. One night Willa overhears her husband questioning the children and she realizes the truth. As she lies in bed that night in their attic bedroom, Powell leans over her and slits her throat.

Powell dumps Willa's body in the river. He finally discovers the money's location from Pearl by threatening John. However, just when he learns the location of the money, the children manage to flee with it down the river by momentarily incapacitating Powell after John knocks him on the head. They eventually find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper, a tough old woman who looks after stray children. Powell eventually tracks them down, but Rachel sees through his false virtue. Rachel declares that "children are man at his strongest. They abide." After a climactic standoff, in which Rachel protects the children with a shotgun but sings hymns through the night with Powell, he is arrested by the police, tried, and, apparently, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Willa and for the crimes against the children.

Rachel proclaims finally regarding children in general, "They abide and they endure."

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The film was a collaboration of Charles Laughton and screenwriter James Agee. Laughton drew on the harsh, angular look of German expressionist films of the 1920s.[2]

The film's score, composed and arranged by Walter Schumann in close association with Laughton, features a combination of nostalgic and expressionistic orchestral passages. The film has two original songs by Schumann, "Lullaby" (sung by Kitty White, whom Schumann discovered in a nightclub) and "Pretty Fly" (originally sung by Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but later dubbed by an actress named Betty Benson). A recurring musical device involves the preacher making his presence known by singing the traditional hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Mitchum also recorded the soundtrack version of the hymn.[3]

In 1974, film archivists Robert Gitt and Anthony Slide retrieved several boxes of photographs, sketches, memos, and letters relating to the film from Laughton's widow Elsa Lanchester for the American Film Institute. Lanchester also gave the Institute over 80,000 feet of rushes and outtakes from the filming.[4] In 1981, this material was sent to the UCLA Film and Television Archive where, for the next 20 years, they were edited into a two-and-half hour documentary that premiered in 2002, at UCLA's Festival of Preservation.[5]

Reception[edit]

Critical response[edit]

The Night of the Hunter was not a success with either audiences or critics at its initial release, and Laughton never directed another film.[1] Nevertheless, the film has found a wider audience over the years, and Mitchum's performance, in particular, has been praised.

The film was shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism (bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surrealistic sets, odd camera angles) to create a simplified and disturbing mood that reflects the sinister character of Powell, the nightmarish fears of the children, and the sweetness of their savior Rachel.

Roger Ebert 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."[6]

The Night of the Hunter was rated #34 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills ranking, and #90 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. In a 2007 listing of the 100 Most Beautiful Films, Cahiers du cinéma ranked The Night of the Hunter No. 2.[7] It is among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14. Powell was ranked #29 in the villains column in AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains.

In 2008, it was ranked as the 71st greatest movie of all time by Empire magazine in its issue of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.[8]

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Night of the Hunter to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected the film for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Remakes[edit]

The film was remade in 1991 as a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain.[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]