Perhaps the most important indication of the esteem in which the film is now held in is its selection in 1992 by the United States Library of Congress for restoration and preservation in the National Film Registry. It made its American Blu-ray debut in 2011 on Criterion, and this week (28th October 2013) the film makes its UK Blu-ray debut courtesy of Arrow. The story of the film’s creation, its failure upon its release in 1955 and its subsequent rise in status to become perhaps the greatest of all cult films (and my very favourite film) is a fascinating example of the oft repeated battle between artistic aspirations and commercial imperatives in Hollywood.
Davis Grubb was a West Virginia-born writer who wrote copy for NBC Radio in New York in the early 1940s while writing short stories, which were much in demand by many magazines of the era. He subsequently worked in radio in Florida and Philadelphia, selling his first short story for $500 to Good Housekeeping magazine in 1944.
After some years of success selling his stories, by 1950 the short story market was on the decline, so Grubb turned his hand to novels, writing two that were never published before penning the Southern Gothic thriller The Night of the Hunter, partly inspired by the crimes of convicted serial killer Harry Powers, which was published in 1953. The book became a bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1955.
Producer and agent Paul Gregory, who had initially worked with actor Charles Laughton on very successful (but gruelling for Laughton) American speaking tours, put the word out that he was looking for a film property for Laughton to direct following Gregory’s and Laughton’s acclaimed collaboration on plays including The Caine Mutiny. Gregory’s literary agent friend Harold Matson sent him the galleys for The Night of the Hunter, and after reading it Gregory sent it Laughton and told him ‘I think this is what we ought to do’. Laughton read it and agreed with his business partner that the book was an excellent choice for Laughton’s directorial debut, and Gregory purchased an option from Matson.
From Page to Screen
Charles Laughton was himself interested in playing the part of Preacher Harry Powell, but Gregory and others convinced him that no one
would finance the film without a more substantial star in the lead. All of the key players including Davis Grubb were ecstatic when Robert Mitchum agreed to play Powell (Gary Cooper was allegedly offered it first and turned it down), and with Mitchum committed a deal was stuck with United Artists to finance and distribute the film.
Talk of Grubb adapting his novel for the screen came to nothing, although he did supply many storyboard-style sketches at Laughton’s request which greatly influenced the look of the film. James Agee, a respected film reviewer for Time and The Nation who had collaborated with director John Huston on the script for The African Queen (1951), was hired to write the script.
For many years, controversy surrounded Agee’s contribution to the film with various people, including Robert Mitchum, claiming at various times that Laughton was the true author of the script as filmed. However, in 2004, Agee’s 293 page first draft was discovered amongst his papers and revealed that much of the film adhered exactly to Agee’s script, although it was cut in half by Agee and Laughton. Agee would die at just 45 of a heart attack the same year that The Night of the Hunter was released, a victim of alcoholism and heavy smoking. His autobiographical novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously in 1958 and won the Pulitzer Prize,
Laughton’s avowed intention was to craft a movie that made people sit forward enraptured rather than sitting back noisily chomping popcorn (a development that he abhorred), and to that end he wanted to utilise the narrative techniques of silent filmmaking to direct and hold the audience’s attention. Laughton and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez and art director Hilyard Brown screened the silent classics of DW Griffith as part of their pre-production process, and Laughton’s admiration for Griffith’s work is made tangible in the film in the casting of Griffith leading lady Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, the protective mother figure counterpart to Mitchum’s paternal monster.
The most startling visual influence on the film is German Expressionism, with the lighting of key scenes recalling the haunting chiaroscuro effects seen in key Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. Laughton envisioned the film as a noir fairy tale, and the striking, angled compositions and stark interplay of dark and light are an externalisation of Harry Powell’s evil and an expression of the terrified worldview of the children he pursues, just as the Expressionists had externalised the torment of twisted psyches in the ’20 and ‘30s and which became a huge part of the look of film noir in the ‘40s.
The film was modestly budgeted at just under $600,000 (or just under $800,000, according to other accounts), and was filmed primarily on Hollywood soundstages rather than on location. A second unit filmed around Moundsville, Virginia, the birthplace of author Grubb, and along the Ohio River to capture exterior footage that could be intercut with studio shot footage and used for back projections. The tight shooting schedule of 36 days was no doubt a challenging one, with two child actors in leading roles and a first time film director at the helm, but Laughton surrounded himself with a top notch technical and creative team to help him keep the production moving efficiently.
Despite the tight schedule and budget, the filmmakers created some of the most breathtaking and unforgettable imagery of the era, using every trick at their disposal and the freedom afforded by a story that demanded the opposite of realism. Cardboard cut-outs, forced perspectives, stark lighting, skilful matte photography and even a miniature horse and rider all contributed to the film’s dreamlike atmosphere, which often switches from pastoral and idyllic to ominous and menacing in an instant. The skill of Laughton and his cast and crew combine to keep the viewer aware at all times that he is seeing events filtered through a child’s perspective (even when they are not present on screen – a small, forgivable cheat on Laughton’s part), which amplifies the viewer’s perceptions of good and evil.
At the centre of everything is Mitchum’s mind-blowing portrayal of Harry Powell, a sanctimonious sociopath who wanders the south with the Lord on his lips and a switchblade in his pocket. It has been written that when filming commenced Mitchum was so terrifying that Laughton had to ask him to rein it in, as there was a very real fear that if he was too horribly vile the backlash would ruin Mitchum’s career.
Mitchum’s performance is completely different from anything else he ever did. Notoriously self-deprecating about his profession and his own abilities (“I have two acting styles: with and without a horse”), to his detractors he was a limited performer who relied on his undeniably compelling physical presence and little else. Many in the industry felt very differently however, including David Lean, who Mitchum later worked with on Ryan’s Daughter: “Mitchum can, simply by being there, make almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen”.
Mitchum is an almost inhuman presence here, and there is none of the laidback, insouciant breeziness that characterised many of his performances. Strictly speaking, it’s a broad performance, and like the film’s abrupt shifts from innocence to abject terror, Mitchum switches from benign to malevolent and back again instantly, and despite the potential for pantomime villainy, he never goes so far as to entirely become a cartoon. It’s an unforgettable performance that made a particularly indelible impact on many who were first exposed to the film at a young age.
Release and Initial Reaction
The Night of the Hunter’s world premiere was held on 26th July 1955 in producer Paul Gregory’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, the screening capping a ‘Paul Gregory Day’ organised by the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce in honour of their native son. It was released in LA on 26th August 1955 and a month later in New York, but despite the efforts of Gregory to get UA to roll the film out slowly to allow word of mouth and critical support to build, UA dumped the film on the bottom of a bill with a B Western, Robber’s Roost, an unmistakeable indication of their lack of commitment.
Gregory was bitter about the disservice that he felt UA had done to the film; they had left them alone while they were in production, but then attempted to recoup their modest investment as quickly as possible without investing in a solid and thoughtful promotional campaign as befitted such a unique and disturbing work. In addition to what many involved with the film perceived as poor or indifferent marketing by UA, the film unsurprisingly encountered resistance from religious groups in parts of the U.S. because of the character of Powell, and according to Gregory, certain key regional bookings never happened during the film’s first run due to protests of this sort.
One interesting piece of promotion undertaken by the cast was an appearance by Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Peter Graves on CBS-TV ‘s live Sunday night variety programme The Ed Sullivan Show. Mitchum and Winters performed the famous ‘story of love and hate’ scene (essentially a Mitchum monologue) and Winters and Graves performed a scene set in Moundsville Penitentiary that was either never filmed by Laughton or was cut from the film (the second of these TV performances is included a bonus feature on Criterion’s 2010 Blu-ray and DVD release). Charles Laughton also recorded a voice over narration specially written by Davis Grubb recounting much of the film’s plot that was edited together with extracts from composer Walter Schumann’s powerful score. The recording was broadcast on radio and was subsequently released as an album by RCA (more on this below).
Although some critics understood and praised the film, its inept handling by UA meant that after a brief theatrical run in the U.S it effectively disappeared. Much has been written about how the film’s poor performance was such a crushing disappointment for Laughton that he never attempted to direct a feature again, one of cinema’s great losses. Paul Gregory had purchased an option to adapt Norman Mailer’s powerful WWII novel The Naked and the Dead as his and Laughton’s next collaboration, but after TNOTH’s failure Gregory and Laughton severed their professional relationship, and Gregory went on to make the film with director Raoul Walsh in 1958.
My Own Hunt For The Hunter
In the mid ‘80s I worked for a Toronto based non-theatrical distributor, my first proper job in entertainment. Behind our offices was a warehouse that held 15,000 16mm prints, a cinematic smorgasbord that was a hugely appealing bonus feature of my job as a salesman/film booker.
Most nights, I dragged home a couple of prints and fired up the projector in the dining room of the flat I shared with a couple of friends, and it was on just such a night that I watched The Night of the Hunter for the first time. I’d been a Robert Mitchum fan since I was a boy, and I had been aware of the film for at least a decade, but I had no real idea of just how unique and powerful a work it was, and flabbergasted doesn’t even begin to convey my initial reaction. I sat for ages after the last reel ended, somewhat disbelieving of what I had just watched. How had such a peculiar and somewhat perverse film been made in the 1950s, when censorship was still a major consideration for Hollywood? Hadn’t Mitchum considered playing such a heinous character a threat to his career?
Thus began an obsession with the film that has not in any way receded in the 25 years since I first watched it completely enraptured, just as Charles Laughton hoped his contemporary audience would. My love for The Night of the Hunter has only deepened over time as I have exposed friends and family members to it, and I’ve derived great pleasure from watching it with people who have never seen it. Over the years I have acquired many items relating to the film including an original poster I bought at an auction in Boston, stills, lobby cards, T shirts and most of the books that have been written about it; I even commissioned an original painting of Mitchum/Powell from an illustrator friend in Brooklyn. My obsession reached something of a peak in the late ‘90s, as I found myself in a position to possibly add to the lore of the film by creating something which had never existed before: a proper soundtrack album of Walter Schumann’s lovely score
In late 1997 I was hired by Salem, Massachusetts based indie label Rykodisc and MGM/UA to manage a joint venture soundtrack reissue imprint, which was set up to properly exploit MGM/UA’s great back catalogue of UA sound track albums, many of which had never been released on CD. A key part of my role was to select the titles to be released, in consultation with soundtrack experts and our sales force and their retail partners. While researching titles for release I discovered that the only audio recording ever released relating to TNOTH was the album of Laughton’s narration laid over some of Schumann’s score that had been released by RCA in the ‘50s.
The first question to answer was a two part one: did MGM/UA hold the rights for the original score, and were they in possession of any elements for this, namely the scoring reels? I consulted my colleagues in MGM/UA Music’s legal department, who informed me that in theory we could compile and create a new, score only album, which could include Mitchum’s hair-raising rendition of the hymn ‘Leaning’ and a couple of other vocal tracks that feature in the film.
I consulted next with my friend Chris Neel, the in-house music librarian for MGM/UA as to whether he knew of the existence of any reels of the film’s score – and here the story took an intriguing, if somewhat heartbreaking, turn. According to Chris, at some point in the ‘70s or ‘80s, in order to save on storage costs when the company was going through a period of cost cutting, many scoring reels (as opposed to the re-recorded master tapes that comprised almost all film music as released on LP, a musician’s union requirement) for UA films had been disposed of in a landfill.
After I responded with a horrified shudder at the shortsightedness of this (which was a common practice of film and TV companies before the dawn of home video and the general realisation that catalogue assets are of interest to many people), he told me that were strong rumours amongst the community of soundtrack aficionados in LA that an unknown number of music reels, including those for TNOTH, had been rescued from their burial ground by one or more people who had learned of their fate.
We began a period of discrete inquiry which led us tantalisingly close to our prize, although there was something of an air of conspiracy about our initial attempts to get access to the reels, with word being passed between ourselves and the individual who claimed to have the reels via an intermediary. The person who was allegedly in possession of Schumann’s score was understandably nervous about entering into any discussion about allowing us access, as theoretically, even though they had been discarded as rubbish, MGM/UA could make a legal claim to ownership and ask for anything in any individual’s possession to be returned to them.
Although it seemed for a time that we were going to emerge triumphant, our hunt ended in disappointment when the keeper of the reels somewhat abruptly claimed that they had in fact been irreparably damaged by water, thus ending one of my most frustrating salvage attempts; thankfully, the original RCA album featuring Laughton’s narration is available to purchase in a couple of incarnations on CD. To this day I hold out hope that the reels still exist and are in usable condition, and that our mysterious scoring reel archaeologist simply got cold feet at the prospect of potential legal entanglements, or simply distrusted that we would do right by him and the music he had rescued.
The Hunter Triumphant: The Masterpiece Shines on Blu-ray
Unsurprisingly, the film on Blu-ray looks better than I’ve ever seen it, with the deep blacks, lustrous whites and shades of grey of Stanley Cortez’s cinematography getting their due; previous DVD releases on MGM have looked murky and have been in the wrong aspect ratio. The Arrow release does not have many of the extras that the Criterion release includes, but crucially it does include the most important one.
In 1974, archivist Robert Gitt, then with the American Film Institute, visited Charles Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester at her Hollywood home. He expressed his great admiration to her for The Night of the Hunter, and she told him that she had many, many boxes of Laughton’s outtakes from the film that she was tired of storing and which she was happy to give to the AFI if it wanted them and could use them. Gitt happily accepted and arranged for them to be collected and transported, but the was horrified to later learn that the film was being cut up and used by AFI students as padding while they assembled work prints of their student films. The rushes were packed up and sent to the AFI in Washington, DC.
In his and his colleagues’ spare time, they painstakingly began to catalogue and assemble the material, and by the time Gitt left the AFI for the UCLA Film and Television Archive in ’75, 20 minutes had been compiled. The material then sat untouched until ’81, when Gitt requested that it be sent to UCLA so that the work on sorting and assembling could start again. Finally, in the summer of2002, a 2 ½ hour programme (that’s an hour longer than the film itself) of outtakes and behind the scenes footage presented in chronological order entitled Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter premiered at the archive’s Festival of Preservation.
The programme is a remarkable look at Laughton directing his actors. He clearly had a very precise conception of what he wanted from everyone, and he spends much more time giving precise and patient line readings and direction to the two children and Shelley Winters (who was not his first choice for Willa) than he does with Mitchum, Gish and the other older actors in the cast. For anyone who adores the film as I do, the programme provides an utterly compelling and utterly unique look behind the scenes.
In addition to Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, the Arrow Blu-ray also includes an interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an isolated music and effects track (sadly, as close to having the score on its own as one can get), the original trailer, newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys and a booklet with reviews and essays by David Thomson, Gavin Lambert, and F.X. Feeney.
Laughton’s once maligned, now revered masterpiece will, to paraphrase Lillian Gish in the film’s final scene, abide and endure for generations to come, and hopefully we will one day have the pleasure of being able to own the film’s haunting score; but most importantly, we can now see the film as it absolutely deserves to be seen.