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the Complete Review
the complete review - film

The Night of the Hunter

Simon Callow

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To purchase The Night of the Hunter

Title: The Night of the Hunter
Author: Simon Callow
Genre: Film
Written: 2000
Length: 77 pages
Availability: The Night of the Hunter - US
The Night of the Hunter - UK
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DVD: The Night of the Hunter - US
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  • About the 1955 Charles Laughton film, The Night of the Hunter
  • Part of the bfi Film Classics series

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of an interesting production

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sight and Sound . 5/2001 Peter Matthews

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The complete review's Review:

       The Night of the Hunter is a cinematic curiosity. Shot in black and white, the 1955 film is Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort. It starred Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, and Shelley Winters; James Agee wrote the screenplay (or is at least credited with doing so). Based on Donald Grubb's 1953 bestselling novel, it is a dark and powerful (im)morality play. Not a great success when first released, it is now an acknowledged masterpiece.
       Simon Callow's survey follows the making of the film, from novel to screenplay through post-production, and then considers the "Reception", "Aftermath", and "Reputation" of the film. At the end he also provides a "Coda", offering "a few personal observations on both form and content in the work."
       Callow considers the film "a supreme example of the integrated work of a team", and much of his focus is on explaining how the team came and worked together to create this film. For several of the contributors it was their only or their last involvement in making a film. Laughton did begin work on the film version of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, but Raoul Walsh would go to direct it; Laughton himself never directed again. Composer Walter Schumann (who, Callow believes, with his work on The Night of the Hunter "immediately placed himself in the Bernard Herrmann league") died in 1958. James Agee (who had been scenarist of John Huston's The African Queen) died before the film was even released. But, as Callow says, even of those who continued to work in film: "No one's career was substantially boosted by the film."
       Callow properly begins with the now largely forgotten book on which the film is based, the bestseller by first-time novelist Donald Grubb. Agee's original screenplay -- a 350-page monstrosity that (so producer Paul Gregory) "Charles never opened" -- is unfortunately lost. Who actually wrote the script remains something of a mystery; clearly both Laughton and Agee had a hand in it.
       The script follows the novel fairly closely, with Callow detailing the few changes that were made. It is a dark story: Ben Harper (played by Peter Graves) has stolen 10,000 dollars. The law catches up to him just after he sworn his young son John to never reveal to anyone where the money is hidden (in John's younger sister Pearl's doll). Ben is arrested, and eventually hanged, but in jail he encounters Preacher Harry Powell -- arrested for car theft, though in fact a cold-blooded widow killer (played by Robert Mitchum, with the words LOVE and HATE famously tattooed on his knuckles).
       The preacher tries to get Ben to tell him where the money is hidden, but Ben refuses. After Ben is hanged the preacher goes off to look for it himself, marrying the widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and then killing her. The children manage to escape, finding refuge with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), but the preacher doesn't give up easily, hunting them down in his obsessive quest to get his hands on the ill-gottten gains.
       It is a tale of good and evil, innocence and sin. The good -- especially Rachel Cooper -- can seem too good to be true, but the evil, in the person the preacher, is as roundly, soundly evil as it gets. Good triumphs, but the damage done along the way is spectacular.
       The film is remarkable in a number of respects, not least of which is its acknowledgement of pure evil (and that in the guise of a man of god). Mitchum's portrayal is particularly noteworthy, while Lillian Gish is also a perfect "benevolent antipode to Preacher's evil".
       Callow correctly emphasizes the success of the score (hard as that is to convincingly explain on the page), noting also that Laughton "overshot" the film so it film could then be cut to fit the score. And there is also the proper focus on Stanley Cortez's cinematography -- also conveyed, at least in part, by some of the many film-stills included in the book. There are a number of visually striking scenes, especially the one of the murdered Willa, and Callow offers some interesting background regarding this and some of the other memorable shots, including the spiderweb on the riverbank (made of nylon thread, with honey dripped on it) and the "distant shot of Preacher, horsebacked on the horizon" (which is, in fact, a shot of a midget on a donkey).
       The Night of the Hunter is a complex film: arty, and yet as straightforwardly terrifying as any contemporary slasher movie. It is a story of seductions -- sexual, as well as the seduction of both evil and of good. It is a haunting movie, and a memorable one. As Billy Wilder and others pointed out, it was not an ideal debut for Laughton, being too ambitious, trying too much. Audiences (and many critics) were apparently unsure of what to make of it. Though it received decent reviews it was not a commercial success. In Britain it was even rated X (not as far fetched as one might think: it is definitely a movie for a mature audience).
       The Night of the Hunter's stock has risen again over the past few decades. It is acknowledged as a significant and in many ways remarkable work.
       Simon Callow's introduction offers useful background information about the film, especially regarding the novel it was based on (which was still fresh in the minds of audiences of 1955, but has since been practically completely forgotten). Callow's neat, ordered presentation makes it a straightforward read. He is sympathetic without being blind to the film's (and the contributors') faults. An interesting slice of film-history, well presented.

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The Night of the Hunter - the film: Simon Callow: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Film books under review

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About the Author:

       British actor Simon Callow has written numerous film-related books.

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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