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The Night of the Hunter (film)

The Night of the Hunter
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Laughton
Produced by Paul Gregory
Screenplay by James Agee
Charles Laughton
Based on the novel The Night of the Hunter 
by Davis Grubb
Starring Robert Mitchum
Shelley Winters
Lillian Gish
Gloria Castillo
Music by Walter Schumann
Cinematography Stanley Cortez
Edited by Robert Golden
Paul Gregory Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • July 26, 1955 (1955-07-26) (premiere)
  • August 26, 1955 (1955-08-26) (Los Angeles)
Running time
92 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $795,000

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is an American film noir directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.[1] Based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, it was adapted for the screen by James Agee and Laughton. The plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal $10,000 hidden by her executed 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 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 David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers.

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 influental film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, only behind Citizen Kane.[2]


In the 1930s West Virginia, along the Ohio River, Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer, flees the scene of his latest victim. Powell is a self-anointed preacher with a penchant for switchblade knives; a misogynist who is both attracted to and repulsed by women. He travels rural roads, preaching in small towns, and seems to believe he is doing God's work. The letters "L-O-V-E" are tattooed on one hand and the letters "H-A-T-E" on the other, which Powell uses as symbols in impromptu sermons. In one small town, police arrest Powell for driving a stolen car and sentence him to jail, unaware that he is a murderer.

Meanwhile, a local family man named Ben Harper ends up killing two people in a bank robbery. Before his arrest, he arrives home to his two young children, John and Pearl. Ben convinces them to keep the secret of where he has hidden the money: inside Pearl's rag doll. Immediately afterwards the police arrive and arrest Ben, and John is shocked by the way the police roughly pin down and overpower his father.

Harper and Powell share a cell where Powell, soon to be released, tries unsuccessfully to learn the location of the missing bank loot. Harper does not give away the entire secret, but lets slip enough to allow Powell to work out that Harper's children must know where the money is. Harper ends up executed for his crimes, leaving Powell to woo and marry Harper's widow, Willa, once Powell is set free from jail.

While Powell charms most of the townsfolk, Young John is the only one who doesn't trust him. John denies Powell the knowledge of the money's hiding place, though he must constantly remind the younger and more trusting Pearl to keep the secret. Eventually Willa discovers that Powell is searching for the money despite his denying it earlier. However, the pious Willa believes he married her in order to show her God's light rather than get the money. Powell then murders her, dumps her body in the river, and covers it up with a story that she had abandoned him and the children for a life of sin.

So successful is this cover story that Powell retains the trust and sympathy of the townsfolk as a result; if anything, his position in the town becomes even more secure. Even when Birdie Steptoe, an elderly man who spends his days drinking on his riverboat and is friendly with John, discovers the drowned body, he chooses to keep the secret for fear that the town will blame him for it rather than the true killer. Nobody else in town is willing to take John's side against Powell, who as far as they are concerned is entirely innocent.

Left to care for John and Pearl, Powell finally discovers the money hidden inside the doll by threatening their lives. The children manage to flee with it down the river. They eventually find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper, a tough old woman who looks after stray children. Powell tracks them down, but Rachel sees through his false virtue and runs him off. Powell returns after dark, as he'd threatened to do, which leads to an all night stand-off ending in his being shot and injured.

The police arrive to arrest Powell, having also discovered Willa's body. John breaks down, seeing the arrest of Powell to be almost identical to the arrest of his real father. John takes the doll and lashes it at the handcuffed Powell, spilling the ill-gotten money, and insists that Powell can have the cash if he wants it.

Powell is tried, convicted and sentenced for all his crimes. Several of the townsfolk previously depicted as being his staunchest defenders are shown shouting abuse at him from the public gallery and drinking. A lynch mob later tries to take Powell from the police station but the police retreat with him out the back, the professional executioner promising to see Powell soon. Finally, John and Pearl have their first Christmas together with Rachel and their new family.



Producer Paul Gregory read the novel The Night of the Hunter and decided to make a film about it, with his friend Charles Laughton as a dircetor. 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]


Critical response

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. 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."[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.


The film was remade in 1991 as a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain.[10]

See also




  • Callow, Simon: The Night of the Hunter, BFI Film Classics, BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing, 2000. 96 pages.
  • Couchman, Jeffrey: The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, Northwestern University Press, 2009. 264 pages.
  • 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.

External links