blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

Night of the Hunter is a singular experience. Definitionally. It’s the only film Laughton ever directed, which makes sense. The film’s visuals are decades too early for the composites they can do; Laughton did direct plays, which also makes sense. Hunter feels “stagy,” but not. Laughton directs his actors for close-up without ever losing track of their place on stage. Plus, there are some fantastic big sets of the Ohio river shore. They’re during the children’s fairy tale adventure, which makes them more successful.

Hunter doesn’t start as a children’s film, not exactly, but it will be one for the majority of its runtime. The last third or so is Lillian Gish’s movie. It’s a strange misogynistic patriarchal boot-straps reinforcement arc, but she’s also phenomenal, and Laughton directs it like a Disney cartoon, so it’s troubled but outstanding. Actually, Gish starts the movie. She appears over a star field with some relevant Bible quotes because Hunter is ostensibly about top-billed Robert Mitchum.

He’s a charming, serial killer preacher, traveling from rich widow to rich widow during the Great Depression. The film opens with a helicopter shot of some boys playing, then zooming in to them finding a murdered widow. Cut to Mitchum talking to God while driving away. It’s a bunch of quick character setup because we’ll never see him justify himself again. He becomes a… well, he becomes a Hunter, but also just a function of the kids’ story.

The kids are Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. Their first scene is dad Peter Graves getting home after a bank robbery, with the cops in hot pursuit. He hides the cash, telling Chapin not to tell mom Shelley Winters about it because she’s flighty. Graves soon gets hanged, but not before his cellmate–Mitchum, of course—hears about the stolen money (thanks to Graves talking in his sleep).

Pretty soon, Mitchum’s sniffing around widow Winters and her kids. Chapin’s suspicious, but Winters’s gossipy church lady best friend and boss Evelyn Varden likes the idea of her settling down with a man of God. And Mitchum seems all too happy to oblige. Plus, Bruce thinks Mitchum’s just great, even if Chapin’s old enough to know something’s not kosher.

Unfortunately, Chapin’s only confidant is his drunken uncle James Gleason.

The first half of the movie is Mitchum worming his way into Winters’s life and affections—and setting up his ministry, something the film rushes through because Gish isn’t back to establish Mitchum’s not a true Christian because he’s not her kind of Christian—then there’s the children’s dreamy adventure, then foster mom Gish’s juxtaposition with Mitchum.

The setting plays a big part in the first half. It’s a small, suffering Depression-era town. Chapin and Bruce’s dad killed two people and then got hanged; they’re infamous. Mom Winters is infamous. Varden’s a good friend to her. The character relationships are delicate and complicated, something Laughton understands and directs for. Both the actors’ performances and how he frames those performances. The film’s screenplay—based on a Davis Grubb novel (better name than anything in the movie) with James Agee adapting—has a particular ear to the dialogue. It’s smooth but stagy; only, since Laughton never lets the film be stagy, it’s something else. It does make sense later with Gish and the Christian patriarchal reinforcement thing; the acting and filmmaking are so good, it never really matters until then.

Mitchum’s the runaway great performance. He starts scary and just gets worse. He goes from killer stepfather to nightmarish demon. Especially once he and Gish start squaring off. The film sets it up as real versus fake Christian, but… it’s not even different sides of the coin. The reveal of Mitchum’s actual brand of Christianity informs a whole bunch about the character (intentionally). The similar reveal on Gish—even with all its (qualified) humanity—informs a bunch about the filmmakers.


Gish is great too. Winters is real good but doesn’t get a full arc because the kids’ adventure takes over. Though, actually, neither does Mitchum.

The kids are okay. Low okay. Chapin’s better with Bruce or the other kids than with the adults, which isn’t great. He and Bruce fade out in the third act, with Mitchum preying on Gish’s teenage ward, Gloria Castillo. Or at least Castillo wishing he would. Hunter can get away with it because of the fairy tale structure.

Bruce is often adorable but not particularly good. Gleason’s fun but the part’s poorly written. It’s a caricature with too many details. Varden’s a little much but likable enough.

Even with their big performances, Mitchum and Gish aren’t ever the whole show. Laughton ensures it’s always Night of the Hunter, a heart-warming, audiovisual spectacle of starvation, robbery, murder, and ice cream.

The technicals are all phenomenal. Stanley Cortez’s photography, Robert Golden’s cutting, and Walter Schumann’s music. Laughton loves using sound, whether the score, diegetic sound, or diegetic signing. Mitchum’s smooth-talking preacher knows he’s got a good singing voice, which pays off in one of the third act’s most incredible sequences.

Night of the Hunter’s a beautifully made, often beautifully acted, achievement of a motion picture. Just a tad too reductive of its female characters. Even if you give it the terrible parenting advice because 1955… the patriarchal messaging is a bridge too far.

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