Night of the Hunter

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Night of the Hunter at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 22, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Thriller
Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
Rated: NR

Being somewhat resistant to 1950s movies, I put off seeing Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort, Night of the Hunter (1955), for years. Then one evening I bumped into it by chance and thought I’d at least watch the beginning of it. From the moment I saw Lillian Gish superimposed over a night sky like the floating princess in David Lynch’s Dune, I knew this was not your standard 1950s movie. It’s actually not a whole lot like any movie from any time. While it borrows heavily from the best of silent-film technique—in an attempt to make it seem like a film from an earlier time, rather than just about an earlier time—it’s certainly not limited to that, and it frankly seems like a film from a later era as well as an earlier one, and not just because some of the sexual symbolism is surprising for its time. In terms of cinematography alone (Laughton’s vision accomplished by Stanley Cortez), the film is absolutely breathtaking. It’s that look—the stylized beauty of its black-and-white imagery—that gives the film much of its haunting quality.

The story—based on the 1953 best-selling novel by Davis Grubb—concerns a psychotic preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in a spellbinding performance), who specializes in murdering widows for their money. During a stint in jail for stealing a car, he learns that his cell mate (Peter Graves), who is slated to be hanged for a murder committed during a robbery, hid a large sum of money. Working from this knowledge, he marries his cell mate’s widow (Shelley Winters) to get the money. That proves more difficult than he imagines, since only her children know where it is and they won’t tell. After Powell murders her, the children take flight and float downriver with Powell in pursuit. This results in scenes and images that are at once poetically beautiful and terrifying—not in the least because everything is presented as if it were being seen through a child’s view of the world. It’s an altogether astonishing work that makes you wish Laughton had made more movies.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Night of the Hunter

  1. Dionysis

    “Easily one of the most terrifying villians in movie history.”

    Right. Add his portrayal of Max Cady in the original Cape Fear, and Mitchum does indeed rank very high among screen villians.

  2. ncain

    Night of the Hunter is an excellent film, and I think Davis Grubb is an overlooked author. He wrote a lot of novels besides Night. His novel Fool’s Parade is similar to Night of the Hunter, but involves ex-cons being pursued by a corrupt jailer after they are released from prison, and one of the convicts is given a very large check for a lifetime’s worth of prison labor. I believe a number of his short stories were adapted for television for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents,

  3. Ken Hanke

    Ken, is this a screen grab of what I think it is?

    No, this is from late in the film right at the point when the cat surprises him.

  4. Nancy Brennan

    I watched this film with my brother one night on TV’s “The Late Show”, when we were both just kids. We were spellbound, and probably somewhat terrified too. I consider it to be one of the best I have ever seen and have touted it to many people over the years. Robert Mitchum is one of my favorite anti-heroes from that era. A movie not to be missed for sure.

  5. Mitchum was the coolest of the cool. This one is definitely in my top 10.

    It’s too bad that Laughton didn’t continue directing. What films he could have made…

  6. brebro

    I am conflicted about this movie.

    On one hand I LOVE it, but on the other hand, I HATE it.

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