First Time Watch: The Night Of The Hunter

Night of the Hunter 2

People often say, “Beware of false prophets.” It’s an important life lesson, and Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter (his only credited directorial effort) perfectly exemplifies this warning. Another invaluable rule for folks to heed is, “Beware of false advertising.” That’s right film fans, yours truly is having a really difficult time with this one. Over fifty years after its release, the nightmarish tale of Robert Mitchum’s preacher assailing young children is lauded by critics across the board as one of the finest films ever made. Even Roger Ebert (one of my heroes who, even when I disagree with him, often gives me pause) has exclaimed, “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up…” Well, sometimes part of maintaining one’s integrity is having the heart to disagree with popular opinions and standing defiant against individuals with a much more esteemed reputation than oneself. It’s with this in mind that I have to state that I “pretty much” disagree with The Night of the Hunter’s widely regarded superior reputation.

During its initial run, the film was panned by critics and audiences alike, and it’s only with the passing of time that it has taken on a perception of grandeur. Having never seen the film for whatever reason, I recently decided to take a look at it to see what all the hoopla is really about, and I maintain that first instincts are usually the right ones. However, I should also point out that TNOTH is not a worthless film. That’s not what I’m getting at. It certainly has its share of positive attributes. The movie is incredibly influential in terms of style and tone, and for good reason. The true hero from this production in my eyes is actually cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who’s responsible for shooting one of the more beautiful black-and-white films I’ve ever seen. His use of shadows and angles is downright brilliant, and Cortez succeeded in creating a surreal and foreboding atmosphere that I don’t think was prominent in ‘50s filmmaking. This is, of course, no secret as touches of Cortez’s work here can be seen in countless horror films since. I must additionally applaud TNOTH at least for its basic premise. Even in modern times, the subject of religion is a touchy one, so creating a villain who uses God as a justification for his evil doings in 1950’s cinema is daring to say the least. They say that even the Devil himself can quote scripture to suit his own purposes, and that’s exactly what Mitchum does in this film. The only problem is that when all is said and done in the case of this little celluloid program, it all rings a little hollow.

Night of the Hunter 1OK, so I guess I should get to what my gripes are. First, let me set everything up: Mitchum is the aforementioned false preacher in Depression-era West Virginia who happens upon Peter Graves in prison just days before Graves is to be put to death for killing two people during a bank heist where he made away with $10,000. Graves hid the money and only told his two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) its location and swore them never to divulge its location. Mitchum picks up that the children may have a clue to the cash’s whereabouts, so after he gets out of jail he tracks down Graves’ widow (Shelley Winters) and marries her with the hopes that he can get the kids to spill. Chapin wisely doesn’t trust Mitchum and soon he and his little sister are on the run. It’s a fairly simple tale, and often simplicity is the best policy. I’m a big supporter of minimalism… but not in this case. Being that TNOTH is such an “influential” product, I don’t feel that the movie went far enough. Sure, the audience is made well aware that Mitchum’s character is a remorseless killer and we even see it one instance. We also know that underneath his tough exterior, the character is really only a spineless coward who can only prey upon defenseless women and children. However, aside from Mitchum’s gruff voice I just didn’t see enough from him to warrant his portrayal as one for the ages in terms of being one of the most imposing and impinging film bad guys. This is especially evidenced by the way he’s dealt with (and by whom) at the end of the film. A movie such as this can only be as successful as its villain, and while every critic since time immemorial has hailed Mitchum’s performance as completely menacing, I found it to be a bit cartoonish. Yes, I know it was the 1950s and times were different and various timely mannerisms in film need to be forgiven to fully appreciate their worth, but I’m sorry, I simply wasn’t buying it. After all, the preacher may have said some nasty things, but on screen, he never actually DID anything to the children. Maybe I’ve just become jaded in the modern age of blood, violence and curse words in film, but am I really supposed to be afraid of a man who uses the word “wretch”? Furthermore, I know that the tattoos of L-O-V-E across the knuckles of one of Mitchum’s hands, and H-A-T-E across the other are together an iconic film image. I also realize that when this film was made only criminals and sailors had tattoos, but c’mon. Let’s not be lazy and use this little device as a symbol of evil instead of relying on good old-fashioned character development.

It would be wrong not to briefly discuss director Laughton’s role in all of this in order to support my argument. Laughton, a successful actor, probably made TNOTH his only effort in the director’s chair for a legitimate reason. That tidbit should tell everyone something in and of itself. I really don’t think he developed a taste for being an auteur. I say this because it’s believed that Laughton had to severely rework the script adapted from Davis Grubb’s novel by screenwriter James Agee, as Agee had devolved into the throes of alcoholism. This is at least according to Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography. (Wow, I would love to see what a mess the original screenplay must have been!) It’s also widely known that Laughton couldn’t stand the two children (Chapin and Bruce) in the film (who were really the main focus), and left much of their care to Mitchum. So, let me get this straight: There’s a first-time director who in addition to despising the original script, also didn’t like two of his lead actors… It all sounds like a recipe for success to me. In Laughton’s defense, he probably did about as good a job as possible, but I still found the script to be pervasive with simplicities that were a little too quaint for a feature with such a serious plot.

Night of the Hunter: Movie review

There’s something else I want to get off my chest. Walter Schumann’s original score is downright haunting, and one of the most effective aspects of Mitchum’s character is when he constantly and calmly makes his presence known by singing the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. However, the film’s score gets completely derailed by the decision to dub in an adult voice for a song sung by Bruce. This was often common procedure back in the day, especially in musicals where the lead players couldn’t sing. That practice is somewhat forgivable, but it’s so obvious and disconcerting to hear the angelic voice of a grown woman coming out of the mouth of a girl no older than seven years that it jarred me right out of the narrative. Oh well, at least Lillian Gish didn’t sing… oh wait a minute, yes she did. Don’t even get me started on her. It’s her speech at the end of the film that probably bothered me the most. When the story eventually degenerates into an oversimplified allegory about how children can endure tough times, Gish states something to this effect and asks God to protect them because they “abide.” Well, I also abide, and I give The Night of the Hunter two and a half stars out of five, and even that’s a bit of a gift. Everyone’s heart was in the right place, but the movie is a cop-out all the way around. It’s funny how the passing of time can inspire romantic notions even if they’re undeserved, and that anything old must be good. Films like this are like old lovers who cheated. It’s easy to remember the good times, but it’s not a good idea to see them again.

  • Marjorie

    You reviewed this movie without ever using the word relentless. It is the patient, relentless means by which Mitchum pursues his ends and his lack of any of the overt hallmarks of a more menacing villain that make your skin crawl.

    And that’s basically what this movie was about – the evil packaged to look like something far more innocuous. His character doesn’t develop because he’s not incapable of it – he is not moved by anything he interacts with. He is the immutable evil that the other characters are forced to recognize and confront.

    As you say, the best scene is the one where he’s intimidating just by singing a hymn that softens out the rough timbre of his voice into something that ought to be soothing. If the devil himself were trying to sing you into a conviction of the hopelessness of fighting him, he couldn’t sound sweeter. It’s like a siren’s call – believe in it’s purity and simplicity and follow it to your doom.

    So, even if Mitchum’s sinister character is a little too understated to compete with modern villains and his failure to actually do anything to the children keeps you in a state of constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s still an exceptionally good film.

    I know the only thing that gave me any peace of mind with the regard to the fate of the kids was reminding myself of the date this movie was made.

  • Gene

    I wonder if your disappointment doesn’t come from the film not being what you expected it to be. Maybe to see it again is exactly what you do need, so you can abandon whatever presuppositions you might have had and evaluate the film for what it really is.

  • ralph stratford

    i agree with marjorie &gene. i found this film quite disturbing and robert mitchums steely performance chilling to say the least.

  • Guesnon

    “Night” is my second favorite film of all time, right behind another Lillian Gish classic: “Broken Blossoms.” How a “film critic could have gotten through the last 50 plus years without ever having viewed “Night” says a lot about the film critic. If he hasn’t bothered to see the classics over half a century, what has he been watching? If he knew more about film, he’d have spotted the D. W. Griffith techniques throughout it due to the collaboration of Gish & Laughton; if this 2nd rate critic has ever heard of Griffith. He’s probably not had time in his career to see “Birth of A Nation” or “Intolerance” either. Get a new critic.

  • Mike

    I saw the movie in the 50′s as a boy of about 10 and it scared the hell out of me. I suspect that is what it was intended to do.

    The analytical drivel means nothing in your review.

  • rufnek

    I think you explain your problem with Night of the Hunter well in a single statement: “I’ve just become jaded in the modern age of blood, violence and curse words in film.”

    I saw the film back in the 1950s when it was first released, and it truly was harrowing and frightening and has remained so each time I’ve seen it again. When it comes to playing villain, no one can touch Mitchum. He portrayed more evil with that dinky little straw hat and sport shirts in the original Cape Fear than DeNiro could muster with all of this paint-on prison tattoos. Thing is, Mitchum doesn’t need as much screen-time as modern actors to create an image of imminent evil–he haunts TNOTH even when he’s not in a scene because the audience always knows he’s out there somewhere waiting to strike. What makes him particularly spooky is the way he charms and wins over all the adults so that, with the sole exception of Lillian Gish’s character, they always believe him over the children. That’s especially spooky from their point of view because the boy know he’s evil but no one believes him. Even his sister is drawn to the preacher at times.

    You’re also wrong about only “sailors and criminals” being tattooed back in the 1950s. Many soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen came home from World War II with tattoos and a new generation got them in the 1950s in California on their way to Korea or as part of the insignia of the fledgling biker craze. What you almost never saw back then, at least in the US, were tattoos on one’s face and hands! The love-hate tattoo on Mitchum’s knuckles had not been done to death at that time–in fact, few of us had ever seen it before, so it was a major statement as to just how crazy this Bible-quoting killer was.

    You really miss the boat on Lillian Gish’s role and performance too. She’s the only one in the film who can steal scenes from Mitchum. And the duet between her standing guard over the children and Mitchum waiting to pounce is a great movie scene demonstrating the difference between real religion and the demented evil posing as religion.

    I’m sorry you don’t like the film, because I think you just missed out on one one of the cinematic greats of all time, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.

    You are right about about the great photography–the scene of the dead mother at the bottom of the pond with her long hair floating in the water and of Mitchum riding that old plow horse against the dawn sky singing that hymn are unforgetable. But despite your put-down of Laughton, I can help but think he must have had something to do in making that film one of the great classics.

    But if it weren’t for different opinions, there would never be horse races.

  • Bonnie Shapiro

    It was my impression he killed the children’s mother. Is that “nothing”? How cynical we have become!

    I have shown this movie to countless people and everyone has found it creepy and satisfying. It is not a horror movie. It is a creepy drama.

    Have you never done anything well once, not enjoyed it, and never done it again? That fact about Laughton tells me nothing.

    By the way, I also love “Broken Blossoms.”

  • brighttyger

    I love this film. The cinematography is awe inspiring. The shot of Shelly Winters underwater is an icon of exquisite horror. Aside from it being a bit long, and the beginning a bit hokey, I have no complaints. Mitchum has seldom been better. It is a Gothic fairy tale for grownups and has stayed chilling for me for decades. Watch it again, reviewer.

  • LCoutinho

    sorry my friend. This one it’s not a movie about religion. I guess you don’t know mr. Laughton very well – his soul, anyway.

  • CarolMarie Stoll

    I have read all the comments above mine – I agree with every said. You just can’t compare the 50s with the 90s. You can’t compare horror movies then to horror movies now. You look at the movie, you look at the time it was made and you do not go beyond that in my opinion. I don’t care about the Director’s background during the making of, I don’t care about what they say about Mitchum; it should be the movie alone that is judged by the standard of the year it was made. Now I know why I don’t like to read critic comments before or even after the movie! I have my own opinion and I don’t need anothers agree or not.

  • Jerry Hickey

    Mitchum created two of the most frightening characters in the history of cinema as Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter” and Max Cady in “Cape Fear.” (Robert DeNiro’s portrayal in the remake of “Cape…” didn’t even come close to topping Mitchum for sheer white-knuckled terror.) “Hunter…” is one my all-time top 10.

  • Wally Bielewicz

    Okay, I read your critique, I read the remarks above, and then I reread your critque. Sorry, the preacher was not Jason, Michael, Frddie, or even the Alien who provide carnage on demand. I viewed this film when I was a young lad and Robert Mitchum’s character scared the hell out of me. A man of subtle evil. Context, my young critic, context. If you understand context you will understand any story or any film with a greater perspective.

  • Gary Gerani

    “The Night of the Hunter” is one of those films you either get, or you don’t. There’s no question the movie’s structure can be off-putting to viewers who unconsciously demand more traditional story-telling progression (act III, where the tale shifts to Gish over Mitchum, is the acid test; viewers who simply crave a great thriller often shake their heads in bewilderment). But that’s what distinguishes “Hunter” from traditional suspense outings, making it a one-of-a-kind movie; and that’s precisely why critics and audiences back in 1955, conditioned to more literal, conventional film storylines, reacted negatively. It’s also why “Citizen Kane” was met with commercial indifference and “Vertigo” was panned. We were all less sophisticated, less well-educated, less open to subtle nuance and the offbeat style of cinematic poetry back then. Today, of course, perceptive critics and movie viewers literally know better, so films like the three mentioned above are easily accepted as superior, unique and groundbreaking experiences. As far as this negative review is concerned, hey, we all feel the way we feel. But I respectfully suggest the writer re-visit “Hunter” without the emotional baggage of “You think you’re so good…show me!” This frequently distorts otherwise perceptive and fair-minded judgments of not only movies, but art in general.

  • Lee Chan

    Did you watch it as a movie or simply to analize what the attraction was? This movie shows none of the things we have become used to in our movies since the 60′s. As a young kid I remember saying to my Mom, they did not show any blood! She was upset by that, her little girl so blood thirsty. This movie was very scary! Lots scarier than “THEM”, a big movie to youngsters in my day. Have you seen “Track of the Cat?? Also a scary and beautifully filmed movie. It is in color, yet nearly every thing in that movie is in shades of white and black! It may have been that I was young, but even as an adult with a deeper understanding of the things not actually
    “referred” to I find it a marvelous film. Too bad, we need to “spell” out everything so even youngsters get it, and the language? Well, films went on for a long time without the F words being used each and every sentence. We may not insult Islam, yet it if just fine to disregard the feeling of Christians. Well written these days is always a wonderful surprise!

  • Mary

    I saw “The Night of the Hunter” for the first time several years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about it. I thought it was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen. Since I was almost 50 when I first saw it, I would say it has certainly held up well for 50 plus years and is much more unsettling than most of the “thrillers” out there today. On subsequent viewings you get to appreciate some of the more comic lines, like Shelly Winters stating, “I’m just a-quivering with cleaness,” after she believes Robert Mitchum is not after her for the stolen money. This movie was way ahead of its time. It made me feel the same way the series “Twin Peaks” did when it first came out. You wanted to laugh at some points, but due to the subject matter, you were not sure if that was appropriate. “The Night of the Hunter” was a very smart movie for the ’50′s and is still a very smart movie today.

  • Max Gantt

    I have to agree with all of you ahead of me. This reviewer must be a young guy. Subtlety is gone from the movies of today. More violence, more blood, more effects, everything has to be overt or the morons won’t get it.

  • Bruce Hershenson

    The movie is clearly meant to be from the children’s perspective. It opens with Gish telling a story to little kids, and the entire movie is a flashback which is how the kids interpret Gish’s words.

    So that is why Mitchum is a cartoon character, and why he chases the boy in the basement like a cartoon character, and why he howls like a coyote when he is shot, etc.

    As many of you have said, it is sad that today’s generation can’t appreciate a movie like this, especially when one of the main gripes is that it is not violent enough!

  • Brett

    Wow Brian, thats a bummer that you don’t see this gem for what it is; a visualy stunning film, that’s finely acted and imaginatively directed, with a plot that chills you. Chiiiiildren! But hey, thats your opinion. It’s just to bad that your “opinion” will be the reason that some film fans out there will skip this one of a kind film!

  • CLAIRE123


  • Alfie

    After reading all of the above, this conclusion comes to mind: NOTH is a crescendo-building psychological thriller. The reviewer doesn’t recognize what he sees, and was so caught up in ‘reviewing’ as he watched, he missed what made it so effective. Such classics deserve more intelligent reviews.

  • Christopher Anne Samson

    My mother introduced me to TNOTH. My daughter is now a third generation fan.

    As Marjorie observed it is Mitchum’s relentlessness that is part of the fear factor. In the scene where the children in flight are sleeping in the barn this aspect is put simply when John, on rising, quietly asks, ‘Doesn’t he ever sleep?’

    It is also the calculated aspect of Mitchum’s Harry Powell that chills. Here is a man who will turn it on at a drop of a hat to charm, but there is no real substance behind that charm. Those tattooed hands are not there to identify him as ‘bad’. No they are one of the tools he uses to reel in the sheep, and sheep they are in his mind. He is not the shepherd he passes himself off to be, he is a predator. That sound he makes in the river as the children get away in the boat…that is Harry Powell.

    Walt, the owner of the ice cream shop knows that something is not right, but his wife will not hear of it. And then when Powell is exposed who is leading the crowd intent on lynching him, that same wife.

    I am sorry you do not apparently appreciate Ms Gish. Here is the counterpoint to Powell, illustrated when she joins him in singing Leaning On The Everlasting Arms. Which one means it? She is the shepherd who actually cares for her flock.

    You are correct to observe that the film is centered upon the children, most specifically it follows John. In a sense the film is a meditation on the treachery of adults: from the father who in desperation does something rash and compounds it by placing an immense burden on his son, to the mother who neglects her duties, to Captain Billy who gives into his fear and weakness, to the village who is blind the evil in their midst.

    The reviewer says he abides. There is a difference, he is an adult, not a child who is subject to adults.

    And the film, from the set-up to the end is a simple parable.

    I gather the decision to have Mitchum work with the children was directorial, likely because Mitchum was the one with whom the children had to do the most difficult work and not because Mr Laughton disliked the children.

    As to the Agee script I gather it has been found. Although it is believed that his first draft was around four hundred pages, a report from someone who has read the found script says it is similar to what was shot.

    For anyone interested there was a lovely little book about the film put out by the British Film Institute. My addition predates the finding of the Agee script.

  • Jim

    Goodness…our “critic” must be a product of the short attention span generation. I suggest he revisit the movie and, in the imortal words of Lincoln, “think anew.” This is a great 1950s movie. And I wouldn’t be too dismissive of the 1950s. That decade produced the H-Bomb, B-52 Bomber, Atomic Cannon, the Watson-Crick Double Helix, eradication of Polio, the birth control pill, CinemaScope, VistaVision, “miracle drugs” (the mycin family), the “classic” cars, Ben-Hur, the Interstate Highway system, Explorer I, color television, etc. Stereophonic recordings made in that era- all with vacuum tube equipment- are still used today to demonstrate state of the art high fidelity equipment.

  • Charlie Ray

    Gee, Robert Mitchum isn’t menacing because he doesn’t curse, and uses the word “wretch”? Hey, if you hurry, you can probably still catch Transformers 2 at the mall. ;)

    TNOTH is a terrific film, period. It has flaws to be sure, (I agree that the climax is a little weak — why does the preacher just stay in the barn until the police arrive?) but the film works.

    First off, Robert Mitchum is unforgettable, and it’s the subtlety of his performance that makes him so. He’s a cold, controlled villain. He isn’t a raving, swearing, hyper-violent movie fiend — his darkness in entirely internal, the bland exterior masks the monster beneath. And as Val Lewton taught us, sometimes what you DON’T see is more frightening.

    Lillian Gish is the heart of the film — warm, strong, earthy . . . and a little ambiguous. How for example did she go so wrong with her own son that he cut her out of his life. It’s another great performance.

    Few films are perfect, and this one has it’s share of flaws, but it’s also one of the best of it’s kind ever made. Patently unreal (the girl’s singing, the backdrops as sets, the animals on the river) it plays out like a dark fairy tale or a child’s nightmare . . . which is exactly what it is.

    You got this one wrong!

  • Alice Westbrook Fowler

    I thought and still think this movie is Just Great.

  • Cathy Dickson

    I think this movie is a classic. There are some times of comedy i.e. when Lillian Gish’s character stands up to Robert Mitchum’s character and he gets a face of I guess either rock salt or buckshot. I often think about how much Pearl looks like Robert Mitchum. There are some very good characters in this movie. It took seeing the movie a couple of times to get the flow of what was going on.

  • Cornell Gregory Jones

    Some people like Mr. Sieck should never be permitted to go anywhere near the internet. I had no problems with the TNOTH. His review was more frightening than the movie. How most unfortunate. He got it all wrong.

  • billyb34usa

    This reviewer should stick to reviewing films like 40 Year Old Virgin and leave reviewing the classics to those who can appreciate a wonderful film. And, cotrary to the reviewer, both critics and audiences loved this movie when it was first released. I know. I was there.

  • Trish

    I, too, rented this a while ago, not knowing what the plot was about, except that it was “classic” and “scary”.

    I found it very enjoyable. I found Mitchum’s calm voice when threatening things like, “Don’t make me mad, boy” a zillion times more creepy than if he had yelled it at the kid, in very much the same way Anthony Hopkins’ calm demeanor in “Silence of the Lambs” crepped out people. (Which, perhaps, Brian can more relate to better.)

    I also was amazed at the Shelley/car scene. It was beautiful, insanely creepy and I couldn’t stop thinking of how they filmed it and got away with showing something so “graphic” like that in the 50′s. I say “graphic” because it wouldn’t bat an eyebrow now to jaded moviegoer, but death scenes of that era usually were conveniently off screen, to be possibly mentioned in passing by one line. This is why there was a major freakout in 1960 with Janet Leigh’s death in “Psycho” (which, I suppose, is also considered tame by today’s standards).

  • Joe Gregorio

    I haven’t seen NOTH in many years, but my memory of it is that it was a great movie. Very chilling.

  • Ken A

    The only part of Mr. Sieck’s review that I agreee with is that Gish’s “abide” speech was anti-climactic, over-the-top, and a little silly. That having been said, I’m not sure what it takes to impress the reviewer! Mitchum has never been more menacing even in “Cape Fear” and he is quietly relentless in his pursuit of the kids. It’s a truly creepy performance. As for not DOING anything to the kids, how about killing their mother? What are we supposed to see? the actual killing?, torturing the kids?, maybe you’re disappointed by the lack of blood or the lack of an F-bomb here and there. Actually, I find it rather refreshing to have a story TOLD without gratuitous violence or dropping the F-bomb every other sentence which is why I am more and more fond of the movies of the 50s and 60s. I am glad that Mr. S. at least noticed the magnificent cinematography in this film; but other than that, dear reviewer, you need to GROW UP.

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  • Jean Noah

    I recently purchased TNOTH on DVD, after looking for it for years. There isn’t a moment in the film when you feel anyone is safe from Harry Powell until he is carted off to prison. Watching him oozing his formidable charm over everyone around him and seeing them willingly captured in his evil web made him even more frightening. Mitchum, for the most part, wisely underplays the role – making him even more sinister and creepy. There are moments, though, when his anger spills out into rage that Mitchum portrays with animalistic howls, making me ever more fearful for the children and anyone who stands in his way.

    As for Lillian Gish, I have been a huge fan of hers for years. Her quiet strength has never been better utilized. Miz Cooper is a strong tree where the two children can run for protection. One of my favorite scenes is Harry trying to frighten Miz Cooper by singing his hymn (which up to this moment has been used as a song of evil) only to have her sing the counterpoint and, for the first time, invoke the name of Jesus – taking the song and its meaning back and evoking a sense of salvation. She is wise to Harry Powell from the moment he shows up. And the only reason he never leaves the barn is because he knows she is sitting up all night with her shotgun.

    Clearly, the reviewer hasn’t seen the film the rest of us have seen. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is powerful and well-acted (with the sole exception of Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but come on…she was a little girl!). I think I’ll watch it again tonight!