The Night Of The Hunter- A Cautionary Tale

Written by Joe D on March 31st, 2008

Have you ever seen The Night Of The Hunter? The film directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum and featuring Lilian Gish and Shelly Winters? It’s a great film, considered by many critics to be one of the top 50 films of all time. It is a beautiful, poetic, unique creation. There are sequences unlike any other in Cinema. For example when the children are traveling by rowboat, just floating down the river at night and there are all these shots of animals, frogs, owls, rabbits, spiders, in the foreground and the skiff with the children floating by in the background, accompanied by a beautiful voice singing a melancholy folk/ nursery rhyme motif.
It’s a gorgeous, deep sequence that transports you to a magical place, sort of a glancing back at the mystery of childhood, the psychic spaces we inhabit as children when we are closer to the elemental , to nature, to animals, to magic. We accept the arcane without questioning.
And the acting is great too. Mitchum said Laughton was his favorite director because he loved everything he did and he would tell him so.

Robert Mitchum as the Murderous Preacher, Harry Powell, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers

Shelly Winters is great as well, it’s funny here she is playing a mother who is married by a man whose real target is her children, a role she would repeat in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.


She studied Acting in Charles Laughton’s class

Lillian Gish is superb and it’s wonderful that she appears in this film. A lot of the imagery seems to come directly out of silent film, a kind of stark poetic imagery, powerful visuals that remind you of Murnau, or Lang or even Caligari. She spoke of the making of the film in a reverential manner. “I have to go back as far as DW Griffith,” wrote Gish, “to find a set so infused with purpose and harmony. There was not ever a moment’s doubt as to what we were doing or how we were doing it. To please Charles Laughton was our aim. We believed in and respected him. Totally.”

The film was shot by the great Stanley Cortez, camerman for Orson Welles on his follow up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons ( Another Cautionary Tale in a future post). The thing is this, when Night Of The Hunter was released, it flopped, didn’t make money, although the critics were respectful, if somewhat baffled.

This devastated Laughton. It’s obvious the man poured his heart and soul into this film and when no one liked it he was shattered. ” I’ll never direct another film.” he said and he never did. He died six years later without knowing his film would one day be called a masterpiece. So here’s to you Charles Laughton, up there in Film Heaven. Captain Bligh, Quasimodo, Dr. Moreau,Gracchus Galileo. We on planet Earth Salute You!