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The Night of the Hunter: Wolf among sheep

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

-Lullaby from ‘The Night
of the Hunter’

‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955), a thriller that long after its release acquired the cult status, is remembered as the only film directed by the legendary stage and film actor, Charles Laughton. It is based on the 1953 novel with the same title by Davis Grubb, which in turn had its plot inspired by a true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Quiet Dell, West Virginia.

Paul Gregory, the American theatre producer, for whom Laughton had earlier directed a number of plays on Broadway, read the novel by Grubb and decided to produce a film from it, with James Agee as screenwriter and Laughton as director.

Gary Cooper was Laughton’s first choice for the role of Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.

Shelley Winters was cast as Willa Harper, while Laughton envisioned his wife, Elsa Lanchester to play the role of Rachel Cooper. Actresses such as Jane Darwell, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead and Louise Fazenda were also considered. Lanchester, for reasons unknown to Laughton, turned down the role, suggesting silent movie legend Lillian Gish for the role instead. A doubtful Laughton signed Gish, and she made the audiences “sit up straight” as Laughton had desired.

Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D W Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for ‘The Night…’. Principal photography of the film began on August 15 and ended on October 7, 1954. Mitchum originally suggested Laughton to shoot the film in authentic Appalachian locations, but the director couldn’t afford to do on-location shooting with a meagre budget. Besides, Laughton wanted to create the film’s unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathé, Republic Studios, and the Rowland V Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

Initially, United Artists did not show much consideration to Laughton and Gregory. Although ‘The Night…’ had a 36-day filming schedule, the studio allowed Stanley Kramer’s film, ‘Not as a Stranger’ (1955), which also had Robert Mitchum, to begin shooting before ‘The Night…’ was finished. Some scenes with Mitchum, such as his arrest by police, had not been shot when Mitchum had to leave to start the Kramer film, and these scenes had to be shot when Mitchum had some time off, which contributed to delay in completion of ‘The Night…’, in turn making it go over budget.

The film was shot by cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ 1942 film ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. It was shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism – bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surrealistic sets and odd camera angles – to create a simplified and disturbing mood that reflected the sinister character of Powell, the nightmarish fears of the children, and the sweetness of their saviour, Rachel. Due to the film’s visual style and themes, it is often categorised as a film noir.

The film’s score, composed and arranged by Walter Schumann in close association with Laughton, features a combination of nostalgic and expressionistic orchestral passages. The film has two original songs by Schumann, “Lullaby” sung by Kitty White, whom Schumann discovered in a nightclub, and “Pretty Fly” originally sung by Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but later dubbed by an actress named Betty Benson. A recurring musical device involves the preacher making his presence known by singing the traditional hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. Mitchum also recorded the soundtrack version of the hymn.

‘The Night…’ premiered on July 26, 1955 in Des Moines, Iowa. To promote the film, the Los Angeles Herald-Express serialised the film’s script throughout April 1955. The film also received an extensive promotional campaign from United Artists. It later had its premiere in Los Angeles on August 26, 1955, and in New York on September 29, 1955. Made at a budget of $795,000, it performed poorly at the box office.

‘The Night…’ was not a success with either audiences or critics at its initial release, and Laughton never directed another film. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theatre to working on films. Ironically, the film gained late popularity and went on to earn ranks in numerous movie lists.

In 1974, film archivists, Robert Gitt and Anthony Slide retrieved several boxes of photographs, sketches, memos and letters relating to ‘The Night…’ from Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester for the American Film Institute. Lanchester also gave the Institute over 80,000 feet of rushes and outtakes from the filming. In 1981, this material was sent to the UCLA Film and Television Archive where, for the next 20 years, they were edited into a two-and-a-half hour documentary, which premiered in 2002, at UCLA’s Festival of Preservation.

‘The Night…’ was remade in 1991 as a television movie starring Richard Chamberlain.

 

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