The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)

"I learnt a great deal from Charles, he had a way with performers and actors...they all had a profound respect for him" 

Charles Laughton and Robert Mitcham
The Night Of The Hunter was the first and only picture directed by Charles Laughton, even if you haven't seen it you can probably recall the iconic image of the film's star Robert Mitchum with the words 'hate' and 'love' tattooed on his knuckles. The stylisation and unique photography of the picture means that there are many images that stick out to the viewer - captured by cinematographer Stanley Cortez who previously worked on the more traditionally shot The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942). Mitcham plays a morally blind preacher called Harry Powell who marries the recently widowed mother of two Willia Harper (Shelly Winters) in an attempt to get to the $10,000 left by her husband before his execution. The two siblings, John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are the only ones who know the whereabouts of this money and both try to keep the secret from their new, crazed step father. John and Pearl are forced to flee their home town after their mother is murdered by Harry, and whilst on the run they are taken in by a kindly woman called Mrs Cooper (Lillian Gish). 

Night of the Hunter cinematography In 1989, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel hosted a special edition of their film review show called 'Hail, Hail Black and White', where they describe the merits of black and white in comparison to colour films - stating that they're "otherworldly, more akin to the dreamlike state that films strive to achieve". The Night Of The Hunter is almost exclusively filmed from the perspective of the character of John as he tries to protect his sister and hide the $10,000 from Harry, and while it's the motivations of Harry that drives the film we are obviously rooting for the two children who are out of their depth and utterly alone during most of their journey. The 'dreamlike' description perfectly applies here, because so many of the sinister images look like the type of nightmare that only a children's imagination would conjure up in their dreams. A great deal of the sets look artificial, much like the expressionist films of German cinema that The Night Of The Hunter was clearly inspired by, the world is characterised by slanting buildings that create dramatic shadows upon their surroundings.

murder scenes night of the hunter
Like the 'love' and 'hate' tattoos on Harry's knuckles, the cinematography and several thematic inclusions work to create unmistakable contrasts between the good and bad individuals. One great example is the fact that the director and the set designers manipulated the scenes that take place in the cellar of the house - this location was deliberately constructed to be abnormally small, that way Mitchum's character looked much bigger and therefore threatening when confronting the two kids (Callow, 2000: 71). Another genius set choice occurs during one of the most iconic visual scenes, when Harry Murders Willia the two of them are in a bedroom that so very closely resembles a Church it really brings home the contradictory personality of Harry. As Willia is basked in halo like lighting while she lays upon the bed, Harry tilts his head and looks upwards as if he's communicating with heaven itself, he claims to be a servant of god who is hateful of sex and drugs and other things he sees as sinful but is himself committing unspeakable acts that have no place in religion.

In The Night Of The Hunter, it is the weaker characters who are the innocents - Mrs Cooper directly brings up the notion of the strong praying on the weak when she comments on an Owl that she see's killing a Rabbit: "It's a hard world for the little things" she says. It's this loss of innocence motif that drives the picture - John has no father figure left in his life and is the one that can protect his sister and get them both to safety. To emphasise this we are frequently presented with images in which Harry imposes on the children; whether it's through simple scale or by intruding into the frame that was previously a safe shelter for John: 

night of the hunter cinematographer
Left: John is telling his sister a story before bed as they get their first glimpse of Harry.
Right: John wakes up after they've taken refuge in a barn to see that Harry has been following them.
In both of these instances, Harry is invading on two different sanctuaries of the children.

Left: Harry lingers in the background as John and Pearl try to hide their father's money in Pearl's doll
Right: Harry confronts John, notice how the narrow corridor setting works to increase the tension as Harry looms over him - John is 
being pushed to reveal the location and existence of the money.

lake scene in night of the hunter
Laughton repeats two extremely similar shots shortly after each other but in completely different contexts when John escapes Harry down river. The first time he is leaving his home whilst Harry is brandishing his switch knife and the second is when John's journey finally comes to an end and first meets Mrs Cooper. Bryan Wuest points out that such symmetry is used to punctuate and 'halt the flow of ineffectual adults' that have so far populated the picture as John finally meets a woman who will act as a surrogate mother to him and his sister. The blocking of John and the adults in the corresponding images are almost identical - yet the latter is quite clearly a less threatening environment - it's less tightly framed which allows you to see more of the environment which is no longer a dark and imposing swamp but instead an open, welcoming, warm haven. There is even a shot where their boat moves in the opposite direction of a spiders web which is framed in the top left corner - demonstrating their journey away from the clutch of Harry. Up until they meet Mrs Cooper, every adult in the picture has indeed failed the two youths - John in fact has an adult friend in a kind man called Birdie (James Gleason), a drunk who ends up failing the two youths. This is obviously a turning point in the film, which may be why the journey down river is presented in a montage of shots that shows natures creatures, including rabbits, owls and frogs which 'creates a feeling of extraordinary natural benevolence' (Callow:72) amongst the trauma at the hands of humans that the two have experienced. 

Despite being abusive to the Harper family, Harry maintains a charismatic and courteous personality with the townsfolk so much so that you can understand why they would fall for his charms, trust him as an honest man and have no inkling as to his true intentions. But of course this is a completely different demeanour that he exhibits to the children - it's difficult to escape the feeling that Mitchum's role here got him the part as Max Cady in Cape Fear (Thompson, 1962) a few years later.  In keeping with the expressionist feel of the sets, Mitcham's acting has been described as 'exaggerated to the point of caricature' (Spicer & Hanson, 2013: 323) - everything down to his penchant for singing when ever he is wandering, his tattooed knuckles, hidden switchblade or the black clothing he's constantly dressed in serve to give him instantly recognisable traits that would indeed make him seem like a somewhat pantomime villain, but here it completely works. As Naremore puts it: such characteristics are a 'clever fusion of melodrama and expressionism' (Cited in Stern, 1995: 203) and it is this combination that makes Harry Powell such a brilliant and unforgettable villain. 

Upon its initial release,  The Night of The Hunter was a 'box office disaster' (Crowther, 1988) and reviews were somewhat mixed. Although based on a relatively popular novel, the dark depiction of depression era life that was led by reprehensible man who twisted religion to justify his vile acts was most likely something that just didn't appeal to a mass audience. With an in-experienced man directing in-experienced child actors and a star with a "bad boy" reputation - the marketing was never going to be a truly effective. But like alot of great pictures once ignored, it has since undergone a major critical re-evaluation and now enjoys regular entries in the prestigious Sight and Sound poll with both directors and critics.   


Callow, Simon. 2000. Night of The Hunter: BFI Classics. (Palgrave Macmillan)

Crowther, Bruce. 1988. Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror. (Continuum Intl Pub Group)

Spicer, Andre & Hanson, Helen. 2013. A Companion To Film Noir. (Blackwell Publishing)

Stern, Lesley. 1995. The Scorsese Connection. (Indiana University Press)

West, Bryan. 2012. Watching the River: Mise en Scène and Safe Space in The Night of the Hunter.


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