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The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton (Dir)
Release Date:   Sep 1955
Premiere Information:   World premiere in Des Moines, IL: 26 Jul 1955; Los Angeles opening: 26 Aug 1955; New York opening: 29 Sep 1955
Production Date:   18 Aug--7 Oct 1954 at RKO-Pathé Studios
Duration (in mins):   90 or 93
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Cast:   Robert Mitchum (Preacher Harry Powell)  
    Shelley Winters (Willa Harper)  
    Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper)  
    James Gleason (Uncle Birdie Steptoe)  
    Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon)  
    Peter Graves (Ben Harper)  
    Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon)  
    Billy Chapin (John Harper)  
    Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper)  
    Gloria Castilo (Ruby)  
    Mary Ellen Clemons (Clary)  
    Cheryl Callaway (Mary)  
    Gloria Pall (Burlesque dancer)  
    Paul Bryar (Bart the hangman)  
    Kay La Velle (Miz Cunningham)  
    Corey Allen (Teenage boy in town)  
    Michael Chapin (Teenage boy in town)  
    John Hamilton (Cattle rancher)  
    James Griffith (District Attorney)  

Summary: During the Depression of the 1930s, Preacher Harry Powell, a murderous, self-proclaimed “man of the cloth,” travels throughout rural West Virginia believing that he is doing the Lord’s work by killing rich widows. One evening, Preacher is apprehended by the police for stealing a car and is sentenced to thirty days at Moundsville Penitentiary. Soon after, in nearby Cresap’s Landing, Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two employees. Ben races home, where his son John and young daughter Pearl are playing with her doll, Miss Jenny. Ben, who is wounded, looks for a place to stash the stolen $10,000, and after hiding it, makes John and Pearl swear never to reveal where the money is. John then watches with horror as several policemen drag Ben away. Ben winds up in a cell with Preacher, who harangues him to reveal the money’s location. Ben scornfully dismisses Preacher, who nonethless thanks the Lord for leading him to a “widow in the making.” After Ben is hanged, John watches over Pearl and ignores the taunts of other children, while Willa takes a job at Walt and Icey Spoon’s ice cream parlor. One day, John visits his only friend, Uncle Birdie Steptoe, a well-meaning drunkard who lives in a wharfboat on the river. Birdie promises to repair Ben’s skiff, but John’s happiness is tempered when Birdie reveals that he met a stranger claiming to have known Ben. When John then goes to the ice cream parlor, he finds Willa, Pearl, Icey and Walt being charmed by the smooth-talking, gospel-quoting Preacher. Preacher tells them that he worked at the penitentiary, but John remains suspicious. When Preacher spots John eyeing the tattoos of the word “LOVE” on his right hand and "HATE" on his left hand, he wins over Icey completely by dramatically telling the story of “right hand-left hand,” and how love triumphs over hate in the Bible. Icey insists that Preacher attend the town picnic the following Sunday, then begins to pressure Willa to make herself attractive to the handsome stranger. At the picnic, Willa confesses to Icey her fear that Preacher is after Ben’s stolen money, and at Icey’s prompting, asks Preacher if Ben told him about the loot. After Preacher claims that Ben told him he had thrown it into the river, a relieved Willa asserts that she now feels clean. Later, when John goes home one night, he is confronted by Preacher, who reveals that he and Willa are to be married the next day. John replies that Preacher will never be his dad, then inadvertantly blurts out that he will “never tell.” Preacher realizes that John knows where the money is hidden but, stating that they have a long time to share their secrets, allows the boy to run off. On Willa and Preacher’s wedding night, Willa is deeply ashamed when Preacher roars at her that he will not be “pawing” her as the business of their marriage is to tend the children she already has, not to beget more. Later, Willa, who desperately wants to please Preacher, leads a revival meeting with him and renounces her former sinful life. One night, Pearl is playing outside with the stolen money, which Ben had hidden in Miss Jenny, when John finds her and stuffs the bills back into the doll, just as Preacher comes to call them in. After Preacher reprimands John for telling Willa that he has been asking him about the money, Willa scolds John for lying, as she believes that Preacher is innocent. Soon after, however, Preacher locks John in his bedroom while Willa is out, and takes Pearl to the parlor to question her. As Willa is coming home, she overhears Preacher threaten to tear off the little girl’s arm if she does not reveal the money’s hiding place. That night, as Willa lies in bed, she realizes that Preacher always knew that Ben did not throw the money away, and that John knows where it is hidden. Still unable to face the truth, Willa states that Preacher married her to save her soul, and lies passively as he slits her throat with his switchblade. The next morning, Preacher tearfully tells Walt and Icey that Willa has run away. While the Spoons are comforting Preacher, Uncle Birdie discovers Willa’s body, trapped in her old model-T car, in the river. Afraid that he will be blamed for the murder, Uncle Birdie returns to his boat and gets drunk. Later that day, John and Pearl are about to be apprehended by Preacher as they hide in the cellar when Icey suddenly arrives. The children reluctantly emerge at Icey’s bidding, and after Icey departs, John tells Preacher, who is badgering Pearl, that the money is buried in the cellar. Preacher forces the children to accompany him, but John succeeds in outwitting him and escapes outside with Pearl. While Preacher is attempting to break open the cellar door, John runs to Uncle Birdie for help, but finds him passed out. John then puts Pearl into Ben’s skiff and barely manages to push the little boat into the river before Preacher can catch them. Time passes as the children, relentlessly pursued by Preacher, float down the river. One morning, the sleeping children are awoken by Rachel Cooper, an elderly farmer who takes in orphaned and illegitimate children. The pragmatic but compassionate and religious Rachel currently cares for Ruby, Mary and Clary, and quickly settles John and Pearl in with her brood. One night, Ruby goes to town, supposedly for a sewing lesson, but in reality to meet boys. She is approached by Preacher, who questions her about John and Pearl. Although Ruby becomes enamored of Preacher, he leaves upon obtaining the information he seeks, and when she returns home, Ruby confesses her actions to Rachel. Rachel forgives the confused adolescent but remains worried about Preacher, who shows up the next day, claiming to be John and Pearl's father. When John declares that Preacher is not his dad, Rachel realizes that Preacher is a fraud and chases him away with a shotgun. As he retreats, Preacher screams that he will be back that night, prompting Rachel to hold vigil with her gun. Preacher sits in the front yard, waiting, and when Rachel is distracted by Ruby, he slips into the house. When Preacher suddenly appears before her, Rachel shoots and wounds him, and he runs into the barn. Kept company by John, Rachel then waits through the night, watching the barn, until the state troopers arrive in the morning. As the men arrest Preacher, John, overcome by memories of Ben’s arrest, runs to the prone Preacher and hits him with Miss Jenny. When money pours from the burst doll, John, unable to bear the strain any longer, cries out for his father to take the money back. Later, John, incapable of looking at Preacher, is unable to identify him at his trial for Willa’s murder. After the trial, an irate Walt and Icey lead a mob to lynch Preacher, but he is snuck out the back by the police, who are assured by Bart the hangman that it will be a pleasure to carry out his duties. Later, on Christmas day, the girls give Rachel potholders, while John shyly presents her with an apple wrapped in a doily. Rachel gives John a pocket watch, and after the happy boy goes upstairs, warmly states that children continue to abide and endure. 

Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Charles Laughton (Dir)
  Milton Carter (Asst dir)
Producer: Paul Gregory (Prod)
Writer: James Agee (Scr)
  Charles Laughton (Scr)
Photography: Stanley Cortez (Photog)
  Harold Wellman (2d unit cam)
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown (Art dir)
Film Editor: Robert Golden (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Al Spencer (Set dec)
  Joe La Bella (Prop man)
Costumes: Jerry Bos (Ward)
  Evelyn Carruth (Asst)
Music: Walter Schumann (Mus)
Sound: Stanford Naughton (Sd)
Special Effects: Jack Rabin (Spec photog eff)
  Louis DeWitt (Spec photog eff)
Make Up: Don Cash (Makeup)
  Kay Shea (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Ruby Rosenberg (Prod mgr)
  Frank Parmenter (2d unit prod mgr)
  Mildred Gussie (Casting dir)
  Saul Bass (Pub)
Country: United States
Language: English

Music:
Songs: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," traditional hymn; "Bringing in the Sheaves," music by Knowles Shaw, lyrics by George Minor; "Hing, Hang, Hung," "Pretty Fly" and "Lullaby," music by Walter Schumann, lyrics by Davis Grubb; "Cresap's Landing Party," composer undetermined.
Composer: Davis Grubb
  George Minor
  Walter Schumann
  Knowles Shaw
Source Text: Based on the book The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (New York, 1953).
Authors: Davis Grubb

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Paul Gregory Productions 27/7/1955 dd/mm/yyyy LP5150

PCA NO: 17385
Physical Properties: Sd: Western Electric Recording
  b&w:
  Widescreen/ratio: 1.85:1

 
Genre: Drama
  Drama
Sub-Genre: Suspense
  with songs
 
Subjects (Major): Brothers and sisters
  Chases
  Children
  Money
  Murder
  Psychopaths
 
Subjects (Minor): Alcoholics
  Arrests
  Bible
  Boats
  Corpses
  The Depression, 1929
  Dolls
  Executioners
  Family relationships
  Henpecked husbands
  Ice cream parlors
  Misogyny
  Mobs
  Ohio River
  Orphans
  Picnicking
  Police
  Psychological torment
  Religion
  Remarriage
  Revivals
  Tattoos
  Threats
  Switchblade knives
  West Virginia
  Widows

Note: The film's copyright statement reads in full: "Paul Gregory Productions, a limited California partnership, consisting of Gregory Associates, Inc., a California corp., as the general partner, & Paul Gregory & Robert Mitchum, individually, as the limited partners." After the film’s opening credits, Lillian Gish, as “Rachel Cooper,” is seen against a black background illuminated with twinkling lights. She reads the Bible to a group of children, whose faces are seen in cutouts against the black background. She reminds them of the warning “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing,” but inwardly are ravening wolves. As she continues, “ye shall know them by their fruits,” the scene changes to a group of children playing outdoors, near the Ohio River, and discovering the body of a dead woman in a cellar. Rachel again continues, “by their fruits, ye shall know them,” and the film cuts to “Preacher Harry Powell,” who is driving in his stolen car and talking to the Lord about what he is to do next.
       According to contemporary news items, the screen rights to The Night of the Hunter , Davis Grubb’s first novel, were optioned by producer Paul Gregory for $10,000 before the book, which became a best-seller, was published. Gregory, who had produced several theatrical ventures directed by noted English actor Charles Laughton, brought the book to Laughton’s attention, and he agreed to make his directorial debut with the property. A 9 Jan 1954 Publishers Weekly article announced that if Gregory picked up the option, Grubb would be paid an additional $75,000, “plus a share in the film’s profits.” On 24 Dec 1953 DV reported that Gregory intended the film to be the first of two pictures produced annually by Paul Gregory Productions, with which Laughton was to continue to be associated. The Night of the Hunter was the first feature film produced by Gregory.
       Modern sources report that Gregory attempted to interest several studios in financing and distributing the film, including Columbia and Warner Bros. According to information in the film’s file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Columbia submitted a synopsis of the novel to the PCA for their opinion in Jan 1954. Joseph I. Breen, the PCA’s director, replied that it would be very difficult to film the novel, as “the character of Harry Powell, the intinerant revivalist, is in violation of the Production Code, inasmuch as it protrays a minister of religion as a murderer, as well as some kind of sex maniac.” Breen further stated that it would be “necessary to change [Preacher’s] vocation entirely, to get away from any flavor of religious hypocrisy on his part.” Breen also objected to the depiction of “Ruby,” who in the novel is a simple-minded teenager frequently indulging in sexual encounters, and to the lynching of Preacher. [Although the film shows Preacher secretly being taken out of the jail by the police, in the book, he is killed by the mob led by “Walt and Icey Spoon.”]
       In Jul 1954, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock worked with Gregory and Laughton to correct the problems inherent in filming the novel. In a 30 Jul 1954 internal memo, Shurlock stated that the “principal problem [still remaining] had to do with making certain that the leading character could in no sense be interpreted as a minister.” The PCA continued to object to the lynching of Preacher, and urged Gregory and Laughton to “check the final screenplay with Mr. [George] Heimric[h] of the Protestant Broadcasting and Film Council.” Although the PCA was largely satisfied with the script by Aug 1954, Heimrich wrote to Breen on 23 Aug 1954 that the commission “is considerably disturbed by this screenplay as it is written.” On the same day, Heimrich also wrote to Gregory, strongly urging him not to make the film at all, stating that the character of Preacher ridiculed the Protestant religion and his actions were “distortions and misinterpretations, and will leave the impression with millions of theatre-goers that the Lord condones Killing for money.”
       The filmmakers continued to work with the PCA on removing any impression that Preacher was an ordained, legitimate reverend, and eventually the screenplay was approved. Protestant groups, however, continued to object to the PCA office about the picture, and on 21 Dec 1954, Shurlock informed a representative of the National Council on the Churches of Christ “that some people at the studio, who had seen a few scenes from the pic, were delighted that, as they reported, Laughton was getting exceedingly artistic results out of this somewhat unpromising basic material.” In Oct 1955, the Protestant Motion Picture Council declared: “This study in human terror will be offensive to most religious people.” In a modern source interview, Gregory noted that Protestant groups across the country objected to the released film and raised barriers to its exhibition.
       Although some modern sources state that the filmmakers considered hiring Grubb to write the screenplay of his novel, they instead hired noted author James Agee. [Laughton did, however, continue to correspond frequently with Grubb during production and was influenced by the more than 100 sketches Grubb sent him of the characters and plot points.] Modern sources agree that the alcoholic Agee turned in a very large, mostly unusable script, which was extensively rewritten by Laughton. A 30 Jul 1954 memo in the PCA collection noted that Laughton was then at work rewriting the script, and modern sources report that the finished script was almost entirely Laughton’s work, although he refused to take screen credit for it, even at Agee’s urging. Agee died on 16 May 1955, before the film’s release, and received a sole screenwriting credit on the finished picture.
       Modern sources report that Gary Cooper was considered for the role of Preacher, and that both Laurence Olivier and John Carradine expressed interest in the part, while Betty Grable and Teresa Wright were considered for the role of “Willa.” Modern sources also state that actresses considered for the role of Rachel included Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, Louise Fazenda and Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife. Before production began, modern sources state, Laughton viewed many of the films of director D. W. Griffith, whom he hoped to emulate. Upon viewing the Griffith films, Laughton became interested in hiring Gish, who had worked with Griffith numerous times. Gish had not appeared in a film since the 1949 Selznick production Portrait of Jennie (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ). Outtakes from The Night of the Hunter , restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives, reveal that Emmett Lynn was originally cast as “Uncle Birdie Steptoe,” and was replaced by James Gleason after production began. According to modern sources, Laughton was not pleased with Lynn’s performance.
       Although a 10 Sep 1954 HR news item credited Frank Parmenter as the second unit director of the background footage shot in West Virginia, numerous modern sources instead credit Terry Sanders. Laughton became aware of the work of Sanders and his brother Denis through an Academy-Award winning short, which they had recently made as students at the University of California, Los Angeles. Impressed with their work, Laughton hired Terry to direct the second unit, while Denis worked with the main unit as a dialogue director. Modern sources note that the aerial footage directed by Terry was obtained using a helicopter rather than an airplane, which was unusal for the time period. Atlhough a 4 Mar 1954 DV item said that locations would also be shot in Pennslyvania, only West Virginia was used. According to HR news items, other exterior sequences were shot on location at the Rowland V. Lee Ranch in the San Fernando Valley of CA.
       Toward the end of production, the filmmakers were forced to shoot around Mitchum's complicated schedule, as he had to begin work on his next film, the United Artist's picture Not as a Stranger , on 28 Sep 1954. Mitchum was sometimes required to work on Sundays in order to finish his work on The Night of the Hunter. One of the shots in the picture most frequently commended by critics occurs during John and Pearl's journey down the river, when they decide to spend the night in a barn instead of sleeping in the skiff. John awakens and, seeing Preacher riding in the distance, wearily comments, "Don't he never sleep?" Although it is often assumed that the shot is a special effects shot using Mitchum, it was actually accomplished on a sound stage with the use of forced perspective. The camera was set up in the barn behind Billy Chapin and focused out onto the sound stage. In the distance, Chapin's stunt double, a dwarf dressed as Preacher, rode a small pony. The angle of the camera made it look as if Billy was gazing at a full-grown man riding in the distance.
       According to modern sources, the startling underwater shot of Willa’s corpse was accomplished by fitting a mannequin with a rubber mask of Shelley Winters’ face, and shooting underwater in the water tank at Republic Studios. Although a 13 Sep 1954 HR news item stated that Don Cash, who is credited onscreen as the film’s makeup artist, cast the mask of Winters, modern sources credit makeup artist Maurice Seiderman with the mask. Modern sources add the following names to the crew credits: Cam op Bud Martino; Asst cam Sy Hoffberg and Robert B. Hauser; Gaffer James Potevin; Orch Arthur Morton ; Singer of “Lullaby” Kitty White; and Singer of “Pretty Fly” Betty Benson.
       On 11 Oct 1954, HR ran an ad, created by Saul Bass, announcing that the picture had completed principle production on 7 Oct 1954. The striking ad, featuring Preacher’s tattoed hand clutching “Pearl’s” doll, was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts as one of the fifty best advertisements of 1954, according to a 31 Jan 1955 HR news item. On 19 Jul 1955, DV reported that Lloyd T. Binford, the controversial head of the Memphis, TN censor board, had banned the film. Binford called it “the rawest I’ve ever seen,” according to the article, even though he had not actually viewed the picture. Modern sources state that the picture received an “X,” or adults only, certificate in Great Britain.
       The film’s world premiere was held in Gregory’s hometown of Des Moines, IL on 26 Jul 1955 as a benefit for the local YMCA. The day of the premiere was declared “Paul Gregory Day” and featured a parade and live telecast on the Tonight Show television program. The picture received varied reviews, although the majority of them praised the acting, particularly that of Mitchum, who later considered his role as Preacher to be one of his finest performances. Many critics expressed opinions similar to that of the Life reviewer, who stated: “If sometimes [ The Night of the Hunter ] strains too hard at being simple and winds up being pretentious, it still is one of the year’s most interesting and provocative films.” The MPHPD reviewer added, “It’s a fascinating picture, possibly difficult to sell but worth any effort to do so.” NYT critic Bosley Crowther, while stating that the picture suffered from Laughton’s “inexperience,” expressed great interest in seeing his next picture, which Crowther felt would “hit harder.”
       As noted above, over eight hours of outtakes of The Night of the Hunter were preserved and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The outtakes, as well as a large amount of written documentation about The Night of the Hunter , were donated by Lanchester to AFI in the 1970s, and the film was subsequently given to UCLA. UCLA also restored the picture, and the restoration had its premiere in Oct 2001 at the New York Film Festival. The outtakes show that, contrary to typical film technique, it was rarely "cut” by Laughton, who infrequently turned off the camera between takes, instead preferring to keep the camera rolling and direct his actors on camera before calling for another take. The outtakes call into question the assertions of several modern sources that Laughton had little patience with the child actors and frequently left the direction of them to Mitchum, as they show Laughton working closely and carefully with the children.
       Although Laughton and Gregory intended to work together again on a film of The Naked and the Dead , and Laughton prepared a screenplay with the Sanders brothers, the project was never realized. Because The Night of the Hunter was not a financial success, it was difficult for Gregory to raise fund for the second project with Laughton as director, and Laughton, wounded by the failure of his first film, began to lose interest. The Naked and the Dead was instead directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Bros. in 1958 (see above). Although Laughton continued to act in feature films, he never directed another one. The Night of the Hunter also represented the last film score written by Walter Schumann, who died in 1958.
       The picture has become a cult classic since its release, and is widely regarded by film critics and historians and modern filmmakers as one of the most important pictures of the 1950s. Preacher’s “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos have become a well-known cultural reference and are often imitated or parodied in films and television. In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and was number 34 on the list of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Thrills . Grubb’s novel also served as the basis of the 1991 ABC-TV movie Night of the Hunter , which was directed by David Greene and starred Richard Chamberlain as Preacher and Diana Scarwid as Willa. Unlike the 1955 film, the 1991 television film did not include the character of Rachel. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Cinematographer   Jan 2002   pp. 86-99.
Beverly Hills Daily NewsLife   29 Aug 1955   p. 12.
Box Office   30 Jul 1955.   
Daily Variety   24 Dec 1953.   
Daily Variety   4 Mar 1954.   
Daily Variety   19 Jul 1955.   
Daily Variety   20 Jul 55   p. 3.
The Exhibitor   27 Jul 1955   p. 4000.
Film Daily   3 Aug 55   p. 4.
Hollywood Citizen-News   27 Sep 1955.   
Hollywood Reporter   24 Dec 1953   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Mar 1954   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Aug 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Aug 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Aug 1954   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Aug 1954   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Aug 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Sep 1954   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Sep 1954   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Sep 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Sep 1954   p. 2, 11.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Sep 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Oct 1954   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Oct 1954   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Nov 1954   p. 1, 4.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Jan 1955   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Feb 1955   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jul 1955   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Jul 55   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   28 Jul 1955   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   29 Aug 1955   p. 9.
Los Angeles Examiner   24 Dec 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   27 Aug 1955.   
Los Angeles Times   2 May 1954.   
Los Angeles Times   27 Aug 1955.   
LA Weekly   9--15 Aug 2002   p. 33.
Life   1 Aug 1955.   
Long Beach Press-Telegram   4 May 1991   p. C1, C3.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   23 Jul 55   p. 522.
New York Herald Tribune   30 Sep 1955.   
New York Times   31 Oct 1954.   
New York Times   30 Sep 55   p. 23.
New York Times   2 Oct 1955.   
New Yorker   8 Oct 1955.   
Newsweek   29 Aug 1955.   
Publishers Weekly   9 Jan 1954.   
Variety   20 Jul 55   p. 6.

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