The Night of the Hunter (1955)—the first film directed by Charles Laughton and also, sadly, the last—is among the greatest horror movies ever made, and perhaps, of that select company, the most irreducibly American in spirit. It’s about those venerable American subjects fear, sex, money, and religion, and for the beleaguered children who are its heroes, salvation comes at the end of a long, drifting journey down a river: our old native idea of finding the way to someplace better.
These Depression-era West Virginia kids, John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), orphaned by the recent death of both their parents, light out on the river in a tiny boat to escape the grasping hands of their stepfather, one Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). In flight, John and Pearl just go where the gentle current takes them, sleeping when they can and meandering past other small creatures, who seem to be watching over them anxiously from the riverbank: owls, rabbits, frogs, even spiders. Toward the end of the film, the children’s savior, an old woman (Lillian Gish) who gathers in the many orphans the river washes up, looks into the camera and says, “It’s a hard world for little things.” In The Night of the Hunter, all the little things, human and otherwise, know too well and too soon how hard the world is. When John and Pearl are sleeping, in their fragile craft on the river and with the night animals keeping vigil, you feel as if you were inside their heads, dreaming a child’s dreams, part blind terror and part sweet hope.
The river sequence is the centerpiece of The Night of the Hunter, and the clearest indication of Laughton’s extraordinary visual gifts, but the film is stuffed with beauties: a superb ghostly image of the children’s murdered mother (Shelley Winters), her body lifeless under the water of that same indifferent river and her blonde hair trailing upward toward the light; an extreme long shot of the preacher on horseback, silhouetted against the first faint light of dawn as John watches from a hayloft and whispers to himself, “Don’t he never sleep?”; a wonderful scary-comic scene, expressionistically lit, of Powell scrambling up cellar stairs in pursuit of the escaping children.
Laughton, in his midfifties at the time of filming, had been a very famous actor on the stage and screen in his native England for nearly three decades, and a prominent (usually flamboyant) character actor in Hollywood since the thirties. His best-known starring roles were in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); he had also acted in films directed by Jean Renoir (This Land Is Mine, 1943), Alfred Hitchcock (The Paradine Case, 1947), and David Lean (Hobson’s Choice, 1954), and in the theater had worked with Bertolt Brecht (on a 1947 Los Angeles production of Galileo, for which he was also credited as codirector).
Even for someone as experienced in the theatrical arts as Laughton, though, The Night of the Hunter presented some pretty formidable challenges. The 1953 novel, written by the West Virginian Davis Grubb, tells a strong, uncomplicated story, but in an idiom with which readers and filmgoers were still not entirely familiar: what we now call southern gothic. William Faulkner had been introducing elements of the grotesque into his fiction for a while (see especially the ingenious use of a corncob in his self-described 1931 “potboiler” Sanctuary), and powerful whiffs of the outré had recently been wafting from the humid dramas of Tennessee Williams and the melancholy stories of Carson McCullers. But in 1955, the southern style, redolent of strange sex, bad booze, old-time religion, and the collective regional memory of defeat, was for the general public fairly exotic stuff. (Flannery O’Connor, who was second only to Faulkner in her understanding of the South’s tortured consciousness, brought out her first collection of stories that year.) It’s a style that, at its best, makes horrors lyrical, that gives the darker, damper aspects of the human condition a weird kind of shine.
Grubb’s novel, which is no longer in print, is a good middle-range exemplar of the style, written in the rolling, replete, mock-biblical prose typical of southern gothic, and plotted with a keen sense of the sensational. The story revolves around the preacher’s attempts to get his hands—LOVE tattooed on one, HATE on the other—on a stash of money stolen by the Harper children’s father, who was Powell’s cell mate in the penitentiary. After Harper’s execution, Powell, oozing piety, marries the widow and begins sniffing around for what he considers his just, providential reward; he’s convinced (rightly) that the kids know where the loot is hidden. And after the new Mrs. Powell comes to her untimely and unnatural end, and the children flee, the story becomes a simple chase, the black-clad demon harrowing the innocents, pursuing them with all his unholy ardor.
In approaching this unusual material, Laughton made several remarkably canny decisions right at the start, beginning with his choice of screenwriter: James Agee, the Tennessee-bred journalist, fiction writer, and film critic who had a few years before supplied John Huston with the elegant script for The African Queen (1951). Agee was steeped not only in the right kind of southern sensibility but also in the work of the silent-film pioneer D. W. Griffith, which Laughton, with near miraculous intuition, believed should be the touchstone for the telling of the story; Griffith was the master of heightened, poetic melodrama, and that’s what Laughton wanted for The Night of the Hunter. He screened as many of Griffith’s movies as he could dig up at the Museum of Modern Art, and hired the terrific cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who had done brilliantly imaginative work in black and white on Orson Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The black-and-white imagery of The Night of the Hunter is in a different, more deliberately archaic style from that of the Welles film, keyed to the basic emotions of love and fear, just as the great silent movies were.
It’s as if Laughton had resolved to recover something the movies had lost, some secret, long-forgotten cache of letters from ancestors—the scripture of the art’s early magic. Perhaps as an aid to invoking the mighty spirits of the elders of cinema, he cast the sixty-one-year-old Gish, the most piercing of Griffith’s actors, in the role of the Harper children’s ultimate protector, Miz Rachel Cooper. The sequences she appears in, near the end of the picture, have a tone that borders on reverence. Laughton frames her with the unfussy eloquence Griffith favored, often shooting her still-lovely face straight on as she tells the children stories or addresses the audience directly; when she speaks, he confers on her the air of authority Griffith gave her in the old days, in movies like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), in that time when movies didn’t need to speak at all.
The other female star of The Night of the Hunter, Shelley Winters, is cast ideally to type, as a gullible sexual optimist doomed to perish early; she’d already played a variation on that theme in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), and would do so again in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita in 1962. (There’s something about her—an unseemly eagerness—that appears to bring out the worst in men.) But Mitchum as the alarming preacher is a really daring bit of counterintuitive casting. For the previous ten years or so, he had been perhaps the coolest and toughest of film noir heroes. With his loose, lazy walk, his somnolent eyes, and his deep, buttery drawl, he always gave the impression of a man who could not be fazed, even in the direst circumstances. Harry Powell is not that sort of character. It isn’t just that Mitchum is playing a villain, or even that he’s using his indolent manner to convey a profoundly sinister kind of unctuousness. What’s truly startling about his performance is how buffoonish he allows himself to be, in between bouts of menace. His Harry Powell is a man whose composure masks the most unruly impulses—imperfectly capped wells of lust and greed and violence that tend to leak in moments of crisis, and not in attractive ways. When Miz Cooper threatens him with a shotgun, he hops away, whooping like a big skittish animal. Small things have to run; the larger beasts are expected to stand their ground. Maybe the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter, and its least appreciated virtue, is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.
And that, perhaps, is the reason this one-of-a-kind movie didn’t catch on with audiences on its initial release. It was an abject flop at the box office, and Laughton never directed another film. He died seven years later. The failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it and even feel protective toward it. The world seems harder than ever, and we all feel, individually, smaller and more vulnerable. Laughing at evil may be an idea whose time has come.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He teaches a course called The Fear of God: American Horror from Jonathan Edwards to “Cloverfield” at Princeton University.