The Night of the Hunter (film)

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller film directed by Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The screenplay by James Agee was based on the 1953 novel of the same title by Davis Grubb. The plot focuses on a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal $10,000 hidden by her executed husband.

The Night of the Hunter
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCharles Laughton
Produced byPaul Gregory
Screenplay byJames Agee
Charles Laughton (uncredited)
Based onThe Night of the Hunter
by Davis Grubb
StarringRobert Mitchum
Shelley Winters
Lillian Gish
Billy Chapin
Music byWalter Schumann
CinematographyStanley Cortez
Edited byRobert Golden
Paul Gregory Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • July 26, 1955 (1955-07-26)
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States

The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The film's lyrical and expressionistic style with its leaning on the silent era sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and it has influenced later directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder[1] and Robert Altman.[2]

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 the National Film Registry. The influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, behind Citizen Kane.[3]


In West Virginia in the 1930s, Reverend Harry Powell is a self-appointed preacher and misogynistic serial killer who travels along the Ohio River, justifying the women he murdered with his switchblade knife after marrying them for their money as doing God's work. After reaching a town sometime after his latest murder, Powell ends up being arrested for driving a stolen car and serves his sentence at Moundsville Penitentiary. By chance, Powell ends up sharing the same cell as Ben Harper, a local man who murdered two men in a bank robbery for ten thousand dollars. But with the police about to catch him, Harper makes his children John and Pearl promise to never reveal where the money is hidden after hiding it in Pearl's doll. Despite Powell's attempts to learn the money's location, Harper takes it to his grave.

Following Harper's execution, the released Powell makes his way to Harper's hometown where he charms the townsfolk while wooing Harper's widow Willa, who has been working for Walter Spoon and his wife Icey[4]. Powell eventually marries Willa. Powell manages to win the town's trust, and only John is distrustful of him. John accidentally reveals that he knows the money's location when Powell overhears him reminding Pearl of their promise. Willa overhears Powell threatening Pearl to reveal the money, but Willa is deluded that Powell married her to redeem her soul.

Powell murders Willa soon after, dumping her body in the river while making it appear that she left him and the children for a life of sin. Powell then proceeds to threaten John and Pearl before learning the money is hidden inside Pearl's doll. The children escape him and attempt to seek refuge with Birdie Steptoe, an elderly man who spends his days drinking on his riverboat and is friendly with John. When they arrive, they find that Birdie has drunk himself into a stupor after discovering Willa's corpse, fearing that the town would blame him for her death. The children use their father's boat to flee down the river and eventually take sanctuary with Rachel Cooper, a tough old woman who looks after stray children.

Powell tracks them down, but Rachel seeing through his deceptions and runs him off her property with Powell threatening to come back after dark. During the all-night standoff, Rachel shoots and wounds Powell as she traps him in her barn house before calling the police. The police, by now having discovered Willa's body, arrive to arrest Powell. John breaks down as he witnesses the arrest of Powell as a parallel to his father's arrest, beating the doll against the handcuffed Powell as the money spills out. Following Powell's sentencing at Moundsville, with John as a witness, Rachel takes him and the other children away as a bereaved Icy leads a lynch mob to take Powell from the police station. The police take Powell to safety, but the professional executioner promises to see Powell again soon. Finally, John and Pearl have their first Christmas together with Rachel and their new family.



This was the only film directed by the actor Charles Laughton.[5] Laughton had directed plays on Broadway, most produced by his friend Paul Gregory. Gregory read the 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb and decided to produce a film from it, with James Agee as screenwriter and Laughton as director. Laughton drew on the harsh, angular look of German expressionist films of the 1920s.[6] Laughton's directing style was supportive and respectful of the actors' input and several of the actors have said it was among their favorite professional experiences.


Laughton considered casting Gary Cooper as Harry Powell, but Cooper did not accept the role as he thought it might be detrimental to his career.[7] Laurence Olivier and John Carradine expressed interest in the role of the reverend.

Robert Mitchum was eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit" and Mitchum promptly answered "Present!"

Shelley Winters was cast as Willa Harper, the woman who is killed by Powell. Winters said that this was "the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave".

Laughton envisioned his wife Elsa Lanchester to play the role of Rachel Cooper. Jane Darwell, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, and Louise Fazenda also were considered. Lanchester, for reasons unknown to Laughton, turned down the role, suggesting silent movie star Lillian Gish for the role. A doubtful Laughton went to New York for the purpose of watching films that Gish starred. These included the shorts and feature films she made with pioneer D.W. Griffith. When Gish asked Laughton, he replied, "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."[8]


Principal photography of The Night of the Hunter began on August 15 and ended on October 7, 1954.[9] Mitchum originally suggested Laughton to shoot the film in authentic Appalachian locations but the director couldn't afford the budget to do on-location shooting. Besides, he wanted to create the film's unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathé, Republic Studios, and the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley.[10]

The director of photography was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles' 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.


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.


The Night of the Hunter premiered on July 26, 1955 in Des Moines, Iowa.[11] To promote the film, the Los Angeles Herald-Express serialized the film's script throughout April 1955.[12] The film also received an extensive promotional campaign from United Artists.[13] It later had its premiere in Los Angeles on August 26, 1955,[14] and in New York on September 29, 1955.[11]



The Night of the Hunter was not a success with either audiences or critics at its initial release, and Laughton never directed another film.[5] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film "a weird and intriguing endeavor," adding: "unfortunately the story and the thesis presented by Mr. Grubb had to be carried through by Mr. Laughton to a finish—and it is here that he goes wrong. For the evolution of the melodrama, after the threatened, frightened children flee home, angles off into that allegorical contrast of the forces of Evil and Good."[15] The staff of Variety summarized: "The relentless terror of Davis Grubb’s novel got away from Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton in their translation of Night of the Hunter. This start for Gregory as producer and Laughton as director is rich in promise but the completed product, bewitching at times, loses sustained drive via too many offbeat touches that have a misty effect."[16]

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. Due to the film's visual style and themes, it is also often categorized as a film noir.


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."[17]

The Night of the Hunter was rated No. 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.[18] It is among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

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.[19]

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.[20] On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 65 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 9.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Featuring Robert Mitchum's formidable performance as a child-hunting preacher, The Night of the Hunter is a disturbing look at good and evil."[21]

In the 1997 documentary series Dope Sheet, John Kricfalusi, creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, considers The Night of the Hunter as his all-time favourite film; he has praised it for its direction, art direction, and acting.

American Film Institute recognition

Mark Callaghan, the leader singer for the Australian band The Riptides, parodied Mitchum's character in the music video for the 1982 track, Hearts And Flowers.

Home media

The Night of the Hunter was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment in 2000.[22] On November 16, 2010, the film was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection in association with the University of California, Los Angeles film archive.[22] Among other supplemental material the Criterion edition includes are various interviews with the cast and crew along with an appearance of the cast on The Ed Sullivan Show performing a deleted scene from the film and the two-and-a-half hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs "The Night of the Hunter".[23]

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.[24] 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.[25]

The film was remade in 1991 as a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain.[26]

See also


  1. Töteberg, Michael; Lensing (1992). The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 106. ISBN 0801843693.
  2. Goodman, Joan (23 November 1996). "Directing dangerously". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  3. "Cahiers du Cinema 100 Films". Cahiers du cinéma. The Moving Arts. Archived from the original on December 18, 2013.
  5. Burgess Meredith is credited as director of the film The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Irving Allen and Laughton also directed but are not credited.
  6. The Night of the Hunter: Not Noir
  7. Callow 2000, p. 32.
  8. Oderman, Stuart (2000). "Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen". McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0644-5. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  9. Eagan 2010, p. 502.
  10. Couchman 2009, p. 123.
  11. Couchman 2009, p. 196.
  12. Couchman 2009, p. 198.
  13. Couchman 2009, pp. 196–8.
  14. "The Night of the Hunter". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved December 23, 2017.
  15. Crowther, Bosley (September 30, 1955). "Movie Review -- Bogeyman Plus". The New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  16. Variety Staff (December 31, 1954). "The Night of the Hunter". Variety. Retrieved January 20, 2018.
  17. Ebert, Roger (November 24, 1996). "The Night of the Hunter (1955)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  18. "Cahiers du cinema: 100 most beautiful films in the world". 2008-11-04.
  19. "The 500 Greatest Films Of All Time". Empire. June 12, 2017. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  20. Couchman 2009, p. 216.
  21. The Night of the Hunter (1955), retrieved 2019-06-22
  22. "The Night of the Hunter Home Video Review". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  23. "The Night of the Hunter (1955) | The Criterion Collection". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  24. Satola, Mark. Preview: A Rare Look Behind The Scenes Of The Night Of The Hunter
  25. "Treasures from the UCLA Film and Television Archive" Archived 2009-06-22 at the Wayback Machine
  26. "Night of the Hunter (1991) TV Movie". May 19, 2012.

Works cited

  • Callow, Simon (2000). The Night of the Hunter. BFI Film Classics. BFI (British Film Institute). ISBN 978-0-851-70822-5.
  • Couchman, Jeffrey (2009). The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-810-12542-1.
  • Eagan, Daniel (2010). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-826-42977-3.
  • Jones, Preston Neal: Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter, Limelight Editions, 2004. 400 pages.
  • Ziegler, Damien: La Nuit du chasseur, une esthétique cinématographique, Bazaar and co, 2008. 160 pages.
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