The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum as "Reverend" Harry Powell

'The Night of the Hunter' is a dramatic movie thriller made in 1955, the only film directed by the British actor Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.

It is a difficult film to categorise, part noir, part thriller, part child's nightmare fairy story and it is a genuinely disturbing and frightening movie. It tells a tale, from the point of view of children, of greed, corruption and murder in Depression-era small town America.

Unsurprisingly for such an unusual and imaginative film, it was not well received on first release and was generally misunderstood. The black and white photography at a time when color was all the rage did not help it at the box-office. Nor did the subject matter - violence, repressed sexuality and a sadistic Preacher as leading man. However, during the intervening years it has markedly increased in stature and is now regarded as a masterpiece. It has influenced a later generation of directors such as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese.

On AFI's list of 100 Years... 100 Thrills the movie ranked number 34. Robert Mitchum's character, the Reverend Harry Powell, was ranked at number 29 in their list of Greatest Villains. In 1992, it was was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.


The film tells the tale of the hunting of two children by one of Hollywood's most memorable villains. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a menacing, demonic figure who uses pseudo-religious words and actions but who is a perverted murderer on a personal crusade to rid the world of sexual undesirables. He has the words 'LOVE' and 'HATE' tattooed on his knuckles and he illustrates the conflict between these forces by arm wrestling with himself.

After murdering the children's mother (Shelley Winters) he relentlessly pursues the children along the river until they are taken in by a kind old lady, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who becomes a representation of Love in contrast to Mitchum's Hate figure. The force of Evil is finally defeated in a remarkable finale only after Mitchum and Gish sing a hymn together but with different words.

There is no doubt that Charles Laughton, in his only venture into directing, created a masterpiece of horror. It was unique, brilliant and ahead of its time.


The film is based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, and was adapted for the screen by James Agee and an uncredited Laughton. Producer Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton had previously collaborated on theatrical projects and Gregory felt that the actor was ready to turn his talents to movie direction. Gregory read the novel pre-publication in 1953 and immediately saw the potential of the novel as a vehicle for Laughton's directorial debut. He paid $10,000 for the movie rights.

Principal photography began on August 15, 1954 and ended on October 7, 1954. The director of photography,Stanley Cortez, had also shot the 1942 Orson Welles classic 'The Magnificent Ambersons'.

One of the most unforgettable and innovative scenes in the movie is the shocking underwater shot of Willa's corpse. This was achieved by fitting a rubber mask of Shelley Winter's face onto a mannequin and shooting the scene underwater in the tank at Republic Studios.


For Preacher Powell, Robert Mitchum was the first choice of both Laughton and Gregory, partly because of his unpredictability and partly because his star billing would make it easier to ge finance for the film. And so it proved. United Artists soon put up the relatively small $700,000 budget. Laurence Olivier was also considered for the role, and was extremely keen to play it, bur United Artists decided that Mitchum's name would sell more tickets.

Betty Grable and Teresa Wright were considered for the role of Willa before Shelley Winters was cast. Laughton's first choice for the important role of Miz Cooper, was his wife, Elsa Lanchester. Lillian Gish who was eventually chosen, was already a screen legend after a successful silent movie career under the director D. W. Griffith, appearing in classic early movies, such as 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915 and 'Intolerance' the following year. Her unique combination of vulnerability and steely resolve made her the ideal choice.

Ben Harper, the father of the children was played by Peter Graves, who had made his name in 1953's 'Stalag 17' and who would gain more fame on the long running TV series 'Mission: Impossible' and as the pilot in the comedy 'Airplane!' in 1980.

Shelley Winters, who played Willa, the children's mother, started her career being groomed as a sexy blonde but gained acclaim and a nomination for the Supporting Actress Oscar playing against type in 'A Place in the Sun' in 1951.

Main Cast

Robert Mitchum ... Harry Powell
Shelley Winters ... Willa Harper
Lillian Gish ... Rachel Cooper
Billy Chapin ... John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce ... Pearl Harper
James Gleason ... Birdie Steptoe
Evelyn Varden ... Icey Spoon
Peter Graves ... Ben Harper
Don Beddoe ... Walt Spoon
Gloria Castillo ... Ruby


Director ... Charles Laughton
Producer ... Paul Gregory
Distribution Company ... United Artists
Written by ... Davis Grubb (novel), James Agee, Charles Laughton
Music ... Walter Schumann
Cinematography ... Stanley Cortez
Format ... B & W
Release date ... September 29, 1955
Running time ... 93 min.

Academy Awards

No Nominations