The Night of the Hunter (1955)

night of the hunter poster 1955 movie
10 Overall Score
Story: 10/10
Acting: 10/10
Visuals: 10/10

Great movie and a unique experience

The flow of the film is sometimes hard to get into and the last part of the film loses some momentum

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Night of the Hunter

Studio:  Paul Gregory Productions

Genre(s):  Mystery/Suspense/Drama

Release Date(s):  July 26, 1955

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated

night of the hunter robert mitchum preacher harry powell love hate

Let me tell you the story of LOVE and HATE

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) while on the run from the law stashes his haul where he can hide it…only telling his children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) the location. When a strange preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) comes to Pearl and John’s mother Willa (Shelley Winters), Pearl and John don’t trust him. Marrying their mother, Powell reveals his true secret intentions…finding the stolen money for himself. A cat-and-mouse game has begun…everyone trusts Harry Powell and no one believes John is telling the truth about the man…and the results could be deadly!

The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is a southern gothic drama suspense film.  The movie adapts the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. It bombed upon its release but is now considered a classic among film historians and critics. The film was deemed culturally significant and selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry in 1992.  Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #541).

night of the hunter children innocent stars

Children can be stars!

The Night of the Hunter wasn’t liked or loved. I can understand why. The first time I saw it, I thought it was impressive but fractured. The story has a strange flow, and I still argue that they could end the film with Pearl and John drifting down the river.  Despite the initial impression, Night of the Hunter has grown into one of my favorite classic films.  It is a movie you can take more and more away from each viewing which is often the hallmark of a good story.

Part of the problem which sometimes makes it difficult to connect is the story.  The story feels pretty segmented and jumpy with little transition between the first and second part. The story’s strange path almost fits the fairy tale like theme of the movie with the river being the characters savior and death (and a Moses story as told by Gish’s character). As the movie drifts along, so do the characters, and the drifting feel of the movie might feel jarring at first.  This fairytale is mixed with symbolism and stories about sexuality and the transition (and differences) between the youth of the world and the older people.  It (like many fairytales) is about a loss of innocence and the wooing of adulthood and sexuality.

night of the hunter shelley winters river dummy underwater

Drift away…

Laughton loaded the film with great imagery. With some clever shots, the movie looks much less like a movie from the ’50s and a throwback to German expressionism films of the ’20s and ’30s. Images like the people superimposed in the sky, children drifting down the river, Shelley Winters and in their bedroom, and (actually a dummy) with her hair floating in the water are haunting and memorable. Laughton allegedly hated working with the children and there have been rumors that Mitchum directed many of their scenes, but many have dismissed the rumors along with the claims that Laughton rewrote James Agee’s script.

Mitchum is amazing in the film. He’s the quintessential bad guy. The “Love” and “Hate” sermon with his hands is referenced so often and much like his character in Cape Fear, Mitchum is just scary. Shelley Winters is perfect as the wooed wife (Mitchum supposedly hated working with her)…she becomes such a shell at his command and sacrifices her children as a result. Gish is also good in the weaker part of the story as the loving and caring Rachel Cooper and also sometimes functions as narrator while providing the heart and purpose of much of the story. I also like the performances of Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden as the easily conned storekeepers Walt and Icey Spoon who quickly change their song when they see Mitchum’s true face.

night of the hunter barn silhouette billy chapin robert mitchum

He’s coming for you!

The Night of the Hunter is a great film. It is strange, eerie, and has a strange fairy tale feel. It takes a bit to get used to but it has a lot to desire for fans of film.  The layered tale and the view of marriage (and some rather blunt, coded sex talk) landed the movie in trouble in some areas when it originally ran…the preacher’s only ability for pleasure coming at the point of a knife is sexual enough for some. The performances and style of the film are something you take with you long after you see it. In classic Hollywood style, the movie was remade in 1991 with Richard Chamberlain as Reverend Harry Powell but check out this original, and hing, hang, hung, see what the hangman done.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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