“And then the good Lord went on to say, ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.’”
What is it about serial killer movies that has fascinated directors and audiences for so long? Auteurs have gravitated to the subject, from Alfred Hitchcock (“Psycho”) to Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and David Fincher (“Se7en” and “Zodiac) amongst many others. Serial killers are the embodiment of pure evil, and we have always been drawn to the conflict of good versus bad, especially if we are able to see a resolution in which the proper side triumphs at the end. This explains why Fincher’s endings to both of his films are so shocking when there’s no satisfaction — no expected resolution — to be found. Serial killer films affirm that crime is real and sometimes crushing. Some people seek this type of films to confront their own fears and to actually try and understand what we cannot comprehend. Fear exists in all of us and these films encourage us to face it head on, by allowing us to lock eyes with Hannibal Lecter.
In the 1950s, there were a number of high profile serial murder cases, including the ones perpetrated in Wisconsin by Ed Gein. He served as the inspiration for innumerable fictional serial killers, most notably Norman Bates (“Psycho”) and Buffalo Bill (“The Silence of the Lambs”). Years earlier, in the 1930s, there had been the case of Harry Power who murdered two widows and their children in West Virginia. He would attract his victims through “lonely hearts” ads and kill them to gain their money. He inspired the 1953 bestselling thriller and National Book Award finalist “The Night of the Hunter” by Davis Grubb, and it was adapted into a spellbinding film directed by English actor Charles Laughton who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1934 for “The Private Life of Henry VIII.” The film is a favorite of mine. I have been remiss not to bring it to your attention earlier. When it first opened it was not warmly received by critics, and it was a box office failure. This affected Laughton to the point that he never directed another film again. It’s an absolute shame. This is one of the most impressive film debuts. It is sad to think that it was not appreciated during his lifetime. The film is now revered as an important milestone in cinema and it appears in many critics’ lists as one of the best films ever.
Harry Powell is a murderer who pretends to be a prison chaplain after his release. He’s on a mission to find the money that a death-row cellmate left behind hidden at his home. He cons his way into marrying the widow, Willa Harper, in hopes of retrieving the fortune. His young children are the only ones who know where their father hid the money, and they have been sworn to secrecy. After he does away with Willa, he embarks on a pursuit of the children, who figured out his dark motives and ran away from home. The film not only explores vividly the struggles between good and evil, but it also works as a portrait of the American South during the Great Depression, exploring issues of social and religious corruption as well as of instability.
Robert Mitchum delivers an extraordinary portrayal as this demonic avenging angel. One that should rate as high as those of Anthony Perkins and Anthony Hopkins. He is very sexy and seductive and there’s an animalistic aspect to him, making these guttural sounds. The acting is Brechtian (which Laughton was well versed in), stylized and a great gamble. He creepily sings a hymn (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”) to let his victims know he’s approaching. Mitchum does his own singing and he’s fantastic. In my book, he rates as one of the scariest villains. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate.” Laughton cast an impressive Shelley Winters as Willa, and the actress in her autobiography wrote, and rightly so, that it was “probably the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave.” Laughton wanted to bring back the power from silent films and studied a lot of them, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of A Nation” starring Lillian Gish. She was cast as the angelic savior Rachel.
What an unique vision Laughton brings unto the screen! He asked cinematographer Stanley Cortez to enhance the sharpness of the darks on screen, creating a great contrast between blacks and whites. Shadows and light are used to great eerie effect. The scene where Harry murders Willa is a symphony of Southern Gothic with high beams like a church hanging above them. As the young ones are being hunted, the world we see appears to us the way children see it: big, and with details missing. They flee on a river and eventually pull up to one house adjacent to it. It’s a heightened sense of reality. Laughton utilized compositing, where he blends visuals elements from separate sources into a single image to startling outcome. The young boy, John looks at a barn window to the sight of the silhouette of Harry on horseback in the horizon. The stunning scene is Ruth in silhouette on her rocking chair with a rifle on her lap and in the background Henry is seated on a tree stump awaiting to make his move. It’s a stirring cinematic world Laughton created. The sight of Willa’s body at the bottom of the river is an unforgettable and haunting sight. Too bad he only directed one film.
Rev. Harry Powell : “Leaning… leaning… safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning… leaning… leaning on the everlasting arms.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Sling TV, Watch TCM and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV+, YouTube and FandangoNOW.
Screenplay by James Agee
Based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Directed by Charles Laughton
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish and Billy Chapin
Bringing “The Night of the Hunter” to the Screen
Davis Grubb’s novel “The Night of the Hunter” was on the best-seller lists early in 1954 when producer Paul Gregory snapped it up. Gregory immediately saw it as the perfect project for actor Charles Laughton’s directorial debut. The two men had worked together on stage projects, and Gregory, who had never produced a motion picture before, felt the theater and screen performances given by the often difficult and conflicted actor were “killing” him and that he needed to turn his talents to directing. From the very beginning, it was decided by both men that Robert Mitchum would play the murderous preacher. Gregory thought the actor’s unique and “quicksilver” personality was ideal for the role, the way he kept people off balance with his unpredictability – “a little scary,” the producer said. “This character I want you to play is a diabolical sh*t,” Laughton told Mitchum to which the actor replied, “Present.” With Mitchum’s name attached to the project, United Artists agreed to put up the small $700,000 budget. To adapt the novel, they hired Southern-born James Agee, a poet and journalist who made a name for himself providing the text for Walker Evans’ photos in the highly acclaimed Depression chronicle, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941). In 1939, Agee wrote a treatment for a film based on Andre Malraux’s “Man’s Fate.” Although it was never produced, it began Agee’s long and deep interest in film, and he became one of cinema’s most passionate and intelligent critics, first for “Time,” then “The Nation.” Laughton and Gregory hired Agee largely on the strength of his screenplay for John Huston’s highly successful “The African Queen” (1951). What they apparently did not know was that, by the mid-1950s, the writer was a difficult and quickly degenerating alcoholic. “The credits say Jim Agee wrote “The Night of the Hunter,” but he was rolling around on the floor drunk most of the time,” Gregory later wrote. “He turned in a screenplay four times thicker than the book. Eventually Charles took on Dennis and Terry Sanders, whose only experience was an Academy Award-winning short they’d done as students at UCLA, to bounce ideas off.”
According to a biographer of Agee, the renowned writer’s script was not an adaptation at all but a “cinematic version” of the book in great detail with newsreel footage to document the Southern Depression setting and “any number of elaborate, impractical montages.” Dennis Sanders confirmed that Laughton “tried to tell Jim Agee what to do” but that Agee didn’t get it and Laughton wrote most of the screenplay himself. Refuting the above claim, however, was the discovery of Agee’s first draft of the script in 2004; it proved that it reflected Laughton’s final release version, almost scene for scene. According to novelist Davis Grubb, Laughton wanted the film to closely resemble the mental pictures the author had in mind while writing the book. In the Lee Server biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care, the author stated that Laughton “learned that Grubb was an amateur sketch artist who liked to draw scenes and caricatures of the people he created in his fiction. Seeing the value in such visualizations by the hand of the author himself, Laughton had him send them to Hollywood and phoned him up begging for new ones throughout the production, sometimes specifying that Grubb draw in the exact expression on a character’s face that he’d had in mind while writing a particular scene. The writer produced over a hundred of these pen-and-ink drawings for the film. “I declare, perhaps immodestly,” Grubb said, “that I was not only the author of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted but was the actual scene designer as well.” (tcm.com)
About Cinematographer Stanley Cortez
Born Stanislaus Krantz in New York City on Nov. 4, 1908, Cortez began his career as an assistant to noted portrait photographers. While working as a portrait photographer in New York in the 1920s, he came to Los Angeles to visit his brother, silent film star Ricardo Cortez. “I walked into the studio and saw hundreds of lights,” Cortez recalled in 1990. “It was a big set with 300 people. A great orchestra played a great waltz, and there stood the director–D.W. Griffith–holding a megaphone. I stood watching, transfixed by the magic of it all.” He abandoned portrait photography and entered the film business as a camera assistant, working on two of Griffith’s last films and on several Busby Berkeley musicals. His first feature film as director of photography came in 1937. He quickly gained a reputation for the quality of his camera work, although he worked mostly in B pictures. His break came in 1942 with his work on Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.” In 1955, a quarter-century after visiting the Griffith set, Cortez went to work on “The Night of the Hunter,” starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Charles Laughton. Working with such directors as Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and Samuel Fuller, Cortez distinguished himself as an artist of great ability. (latimes.com)
The Making of “The Night of the Hunter”
In his own words, director Charles Laughton described “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” Based on a popular novel by David Grubb, the film takes place in West Virginia during the Depression and follows a homicidal preacher as he stalks two children, a brother and sister, across the rural landscape. The reason for his pursuit is $10,000 in cash and it’s stuffed inside a doll the little girl is carrying. Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay but the famous author of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” had a severe drinking problem (he died the same year) and the screenplay he delivered was a mammoth script by Hollywood standards that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Although Agee biographer Lawrence Bergman maintained that Laughton had to rewrite most of the screenplay, the discovery of Agee’s first draft of the script in 2004 proved that it reflected Laughton’s final release version, almost scene for scene. Laughton had a much more positive working experience with his second-unit directors, Terry and Denis Sanders, whose documentary film, “A Time Out of War” (1954) won an Oscar®, and cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The latter once remarked: “Apart from The Magnificent Ambersons, the most exciting experience I have had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on ‘Night of the Hunter’ …every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can’t be described. Of the directors I’ve worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.” (tcm.com)
About Screenwriter James Agee
Poet, novelist, and activist James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was six years old when his father, a postal worker, died in a car accident. After his father’s death, Agee attended boarding schools before earning an AB at Harvard University, where he edited the literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. He worked as a journalist for Fortune magazine until 1939. In the 1940s, he wrote some of the first serious film criticism for The Nation and Time. Agee’s poetry is heavily influenced by Shakespeare and many 17th-century British poets; his formal poems frequently engage death and religious faith. In an interview with the Library of America, poet Andrew Hudgins, editor of James Agee: Selected Poems (2008), discussed the conflicted resonance of Agee’s Episcopalian upbringing in his poetry. “In the devotional tradition of the sonnet from Dante to Donne, Agee found the perfect form to express and examine his beliefs and to work them out against the background of modernity,” Hudgins noted. “The tension between spirit and mind is quite taut in his sonnets. He clings to an instinctive (and carefully inculcated) faith even as his sharpening intellect erodes it, reshapes it, and ultimately, in poems outside the sonnets, undermines it.” Agee was the author of the poetry collection Permit Me Voyage (1934), chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Archibald MacLeish. His prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1938) was set to music by Samuel Barber in 1947. The Collected Poems (1968) and Collected Short Prose of James Agee (1969) were both edited by Robert Fitzgerald.
Agee’s prose style is famous for its lyrical, exploratory qualities; his examinations of life, self, and art are frequently leavened by a caustic wit. With photographer Walker Evans, he collaborated on a book documenting the lives of three Alabama sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families (1941). Agee was also the author of the novella The Morning Watch (1951). His posthumously published novel A Death in the Family (1957) won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize. His essay “Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes,” paired with an introduction by novelist Jonathan Lethem, was published for the first time in book form as Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes (2005). He wrote the screenplays for The African Queen (1951, coauthored with John Huston and nominated for an Academy Award) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Agee’s film reviews are collected in Agee on Film, Volume 1 (1958). Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962) records his lifelong correspondence with the priest from the Episcopalian boarding school Agee attended. Agee died of a heart attack on May 16, 1955, in New York City. Selections of his papers are held at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where there is a library named in his honor, and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (poetryfoundation.org)
About Author Davis Grubb
Novelist Davis Grubb was born in Moundsville on July 23, 1919. He came from a prosperous background, but his family was hit badly by the Great Depression and evicted from their home. The incident likely influenced his later writings, which often criticized politicians and wealthy capitalists. He first tried his hand as a graphic artist but realized his writing talents were more marketable. Grubb’s first commercial writing endeavor was a script for a 1939 radio show that aired in Clarksburg. He also acted in the show. Grubb gained instant notoriety in 1953, when his first novel was published. The Night of the Hunter loosely retold the story of Harry Powers, West Virginia’s deadliest serial killer. In 1955, The Night of the Hunter was made into a classic film starring Robert Mitchum. Most of Davis Grubbs’s 11 books were set in Appalachia. In 1971, his novel Fool’s Parade was turned into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart and George Kennedy, with scenes shot on location in Moundsville. In 1977, Grubb returned to West Virginia for a statewide speaking tour that lasted two years. He died in 1980 at the age of 61. (wvpublic.org)
About Director Charles Laughton
Born on July 1, 1899 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England, Laughton was raised by his father, Robert, a hotel keeper, and his mother, Eliza. He attended the Roman Catholic Stonyhurst College until 1915, when his parents sent him off to work at Claridges Hotel while World War I raged across Europe. Despite his parents wanting him to join the family business, Laughton showed no interest outside of earning money, which he spent quite a bit of at London theatres. He joined the army in 1917 when he was old enough, serving in the Huntingdonshire Cyclists before being sent to the Western Front in 1918. It was there that Laughton came face to face with the horrors of war, things that he refused to talk about even decades later. Right before the armistice, Laughton was involved in a gas attack that burned the skin on his back and caused years of throat problems that jeopardized his early acting career. Meanwhile, he convalesced from his injuries, leaving the army in 1919 and returning home to resume his work at the family’s hotel. In order to fully heal, however, Laughton – whose desire to perform was rekindled while in the hospital – began acting in amateur theatre groups. When he was 27 years old, he was finally allowed by his family to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he made his first professional stage appearance at the Barnes Theatre in the comedy “The Government Inspector” (1926). From there, he landed roles in productions of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Tree Sisters” before snagging the lead for the London premiere of Sean O’Casey’s “The Silver Tassie” (1928). Though physically not a classic leading man, the portly Laughton won audiences over with his immense talent in productions of “Mr. Prohack,” “Alibi,” “Mr. Pickwick” and “Payment Deferred.”
About this time, he began appearing in films, making his debut with a small role opposite Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong in the showbiz drama “Piccadilly” (1929). Laughton went on to appear in two early British talkies, starring opposite Dorothy Gish in “Wolves” (1930) and playing a half-Asian drug smuggler in the crime drama “Down River” (1931). After making his New York stage debut in 1931, Laughton began his Hollywood career with James Whales’ “The Old Dark Horse” (1932) and playing Emperor Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epic “The Sign of the Cross” (1932). Also that year, he appeared in the Paramount Pictures anthology film “If I Had a Million” (1932) and played Dr. Moreau in the controversial horror thriller “Island of Lost Souls” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi and Kathleen Burke. Returning to England, Laughton delivered his most venerable performance, playing a mutton-eating King Henry VIII in the classic biopic “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933). Not only did his exuberant performance earn him the Academy Award for Best Actor and turn him into an international star, but the film itself put the previously ignored British cinema on the map. In 1933, Laughton had given up the stage in favor of motion pictures and next starred opposite Carole Lombard in “White Woman” (1933). He went on to play the malevolent father of adult children living under his room in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934) and police inspector Javert in “Les Misérable” (1935). At MGM, Laughton delivered one of his most famous performances in “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), portraying cruel taskmaster Captain William Bligh, who earns the enmity of his misfit crew aboard the U.S.S. Bounty by dispensing discipline through repeated lashings and rationing of food. His brilliant performance as the despicable Bligh opposite Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian earned Laughton an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
After starring in the comedy “Ruggles of Red Rap” (1935), he had a valiant turn as Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn in “Rembrandt” (1936), an interesting but failed biopic about the famed 17th century painter. He next starred opposite fellow Brits Vivian Leigh and Rex Harrison in “St. Martin’s Lane” (1938), before starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last British picture, “Jamaica Inn” (1939), where he managed to outsize Hitchcock in terms of ego by demanding that his minor role be expanded into a major one. From there, Laughton had yet another iconic performance, movingly playing the grotesquely deformed Quasimodo to Maureen O’Hara’s Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), arguably the best adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. Laughton reunited with Lombard for the marriage drama “They Knew What They Wanted” (1940), before playing the head of a family living in the South Seas in “The Tuttles of Tahiti” (1942) and an American admiral in the World War II drama “Stand By for Action” (1942). Continuing to dazzle in a wide range of characters, Laughton was a cowardly schoolmaster in “This Land is Mine” (1943), an amiable but henpecked shopkeeper in “The Suspect” (1944), a feckless British aristocrat who fails to act on the field of battle in “The Canterville Ghost” (1944) and the titular “Captain Kidd” (1945), a seafaring adventure about the famed 17th century pirate. After playing a famed Broadway producer in the romantic comedy “Because of Him” (1946), Laughton somehow managed to get back into Hitchcock’s good graces to appear in the Master’s lesser film “The Paradine Case” (1947), starring Gregory Peck and Ann Todd.
He next joined Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan for the excellent but underrated film noir “The Big Clock” (1948). Laughton went on to play an analytical inspector on the trail of a clever murderer in “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949) and was a member of a South American contraband racket in the good, but not great crime thriller “The Bribe” (1949). Following turns in the weepy drama “The Blue Veil” (1951) and opposite Boris Karloff in “The Strange Door” (1951), Laughton reprised the infamous Cpt. Kidd for the comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” (1952).
Still very much in demand after two decades on the screen, Laughton reprised his Oscar-winning role of King Henry VIII for “Young Bess” (1953), a history-bending drama about the early years of the woman (Jean Simmons) who would later become Queen Elizabeth I. In the religious epic “Salome” (1953), he portrayed a superstitious King Herod, before playing a domineering boot shop owner in David Lean’s satirical comedy “Hobson’s Choice” (1954). Meanwhile, Laughton – who had previously directed theater back in his stage days – decided to have a go at directing a feature, “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), which featured a mesmerizing performance by Robert Mitchum as a murderous convict posing as a preacher in order to win over his old cellmate’s family in an effort to locate hidden money. Both a literal and proverbial parable on good and evil, “The Night of the Hunter” was a critical and box office flop at the time of release. Despite expert craftsmanship on the part of Laughton – including amazing an amazing underwater shot of a body – he never again directed another film. Still, the film grew substantially in stature over the years and was lauded by many contemporary critics as a masterpiece, with Mitchum delivering one of the best and most frightening performances of his career. In Billy Wilder’s excellent courtroom drama “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), Laughton delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a master barrister in ill health who battles his overbearing nurse (played by real-life wife Elsa Lanchester) in order to take on the case of a man (Tyrone Power) accused of murder. Returning to the stage in 1958, he directed and starred in “The Party,” which co-starred Lanchester and Albert Finney. He made his final stage appearances as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1959) and as “King Lear” (1959), both for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Failing health prevented Laughton from working as prolifically has he had done in the past. In fact, he only appeared in two more films, playing an unscrupulous Roman senator who opts for suicide rather than capital punishment in Stanley Kubrick’s historical epic “Spartacus” (1960) and a curmudgeonly Southern politician in Otto Preminger’s political drama “Advise and Consent” (1962). Later that year, on Dec. 15, 1962, Laughton died after a long battle with kidney cancer. (tcm.com)