(#5 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER – Based on a 1953 bestseller by Davis Grubb, the non-fiction thriller was a finalist for the 1955 National Book Award. The novel offered the author's account of the Harry Power's story, who was executed in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Moundsville, West Virginia.
First-time director Charles Laughton helped assemble a fabulous cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, and Peter Graves. Laughton was an Oscar-winning actor who starred in acclaimed motion pictures as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Laughton’s goal was to create a visually stunning movie based on the European cinematic approaches of German Expressionism of the 1920s and visual metaphors developed by director Fritz Lang, combined with film noir popular for a decade. He developed the elements important in modern thrillers, which inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho, Wait Until Dark, The Boston Strangler, Rosemary’s Baby, and the screen adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But, The Night of the Hunter was not a success with either audiences or critics during its initial release. Charles Laughton never directed another picture.
Laughton achieved his directoral goals in his use of biblical themes, which were effectively referenced by his cast. Camera angles were intentionally distorted, and the music score used was haunting. And, the screenplay was a fabulous collaboration by Laughton and James Agee.
CHARLES LAUGHTON / ROBERT MITCHUM
Robert Mitchum always felt this was his best screen role. He was correct. His menacing approach was alternately playful and frightening. Mitchum commands confidence in his portrayal, while delivering bitter patience while searching for a hidden fortune. Burt Lancaster later mimicked elements of Mitchum’s character in Elmer Gantry.
The children, portrayed by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, produced physically successful performances while playing opposite their adult counterparts. They just about steal the movie from Mitchum, who knew how to command a scene.
The Night of the Hunter was a blueprint in the development of modern filmmaking. Quite frankly, the movie was ahead of its time. The complicated camera techniques were second only to what Orson Welles accomplished in Citizen Kane. Audiences were just not prepared for the director’s approach, which was the main reason for its lukewarm reception. Looking back, the reaction might have been more of a glimpse at the lack of sophistication by audiences of the day. Or, the political climate generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War might have created the desire for a more positive cinematic experience.
Charles Laughton should have had a respected resume as a director. Instead, he glumly returned to acting. Film-goers during Hollywood’s Golden Age were the loser for this decision.
Supporting Actor Spotlight
Lillian Gish had an eight-decade career in Hollywood. Considered one of the great actresses in the annals of early cinema, she began working in silent pictures in 1912. Gish was a favorite of directors D.W. Griffith, King Vidor, John Huston, and William Dieterle. She co-starred in Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Intolerance, and Ben-Hur (MGM’s 1925 version). She retired at the advent of talkies (in 1933) until the 1940’s.
LILLIAN GISH (holding gun)
She received a Best Supporting Actress-nomination for her performance in Duel in the Sun; and her final film was The Whales of August in 1987. Her co-stars included Bette Davis, Ann Southern, and Vincent Price. Lillian was also part of acting royalty. Her sister Dorothy had a nice movie career.
A street in Massillon, Ohio is named after Lillian Gish, who lived there during an early period in her life, and fondly referred to it as her hometown throughout her career.
She died of natural causes in 1993 at the age of 99.
Charles Laughton’s final acting assignments included roles in Witness for the Prosecution (an Oscar nomination followed), Spartacus, and Advise and Consent. He was happily married to Elsa Lanchester for thirty-three years. The consumate actor died in 1962.
The American Film Institute and the Library of Congress are among the prestigious organizations who have lavished praise on this memorable motion picture. David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and the Coen Brothers are among today’s directors who say they have been influenced by the majesty of The Night of the Hunter.
Harry Powell’s LOVE/HATE tattoos on his knuckles are still considered visually iconic, with creative homage provided by Dan Ackroyd in The Blues Brothers, and mentioned in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Silence of the Lambs.
On a personal note, actor James Gleason, who appeared in The Night of the Hunter, will have his own Chapter in my next book, Son of Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History.
Causes Manny Pacheco Supports