The Night of the Hunter – the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller directed by Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. 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).

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  was shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism (bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surreal 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.

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In the story, set in West Virginia in the 1930s, along the Ohio River, Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer, flees the scene of his latest murder. 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 rationalizes his murders by telling himself that he is punishing sinful women and gaining money to preach God’s word. The letters “L-O-V-E” are tattooed on the fingers of his right hand, and the letters “H-A-T-E” on those of his left hand. Powell uses them as symbols in impromptu sermons. In one small town, police arrest Powell for driving a stolen car and he is sentenced to jail.

Meanwhile, a local family man named Ben Harper kills two people in a bank robbery. He arrives home and hides the money he has stolen inside his daughter’s rag doll. He convinces his two young children, John and Pearl, to keep the hiding place secret. The police arrive and arrest Ben, while John is shocked by the way the police roughly overpower his father.

Harper and Powell share a cell where Powell, soon to be released, tries without success to learn the location of the stolen money. Harper lets slip enough information to allow Powell to determine that Harper’s children must know where the money is. Harper is executed for his crimes, while Powell is released from jail, and then woos and marries Harper’s widow, Willa. Then this great thriller really begins.

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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

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.

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“The Night of the Hunter was the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s,” – Robert Gitt, (technical officer at the American Film Institute) “Laughton and [the movie’s screenwriter James] Agee are known to have screened a number of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in preparation for this project. You can see the influence of D.W. Griffith in some of the countryside scenes. They must have also screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the work of F. W. Murnau; the influence of German expressionism is so strong here.”

In bringing to the screen Davis Grubb’s novel, “Laughton sought to create a working environment in which cast and crew could inhabit Grubb’s dreamlike world. Toward that end, Laughton sought to minimize the mechanics of filmmaking: he rarely called “cut,” and between takes kept the cameras rolling. This meant, of course, that he was caught on sound film, shaping his cast’s performances and guiding the film to the place he always saw it going.”Mark Satola – A Rare Look Behind the Scenes of “The Night of the Hunter”

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.

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For an extremely in-depth analysis of the themes raised in the film, see this review

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