“It’s a hard world for little things.” — Rachel Cooper
It is perhaps difficult to believe that two such different men, at least from the personas they projected, could come together in 1955 to make a film that was not only unique in its time—silent movie techniques and an allegory of evil—but became an artistic creation both men would regard highly the rest of their lives. The two men were an actor, Robert Mitchum, and an actor-turned-director, Charles Laughton, at least a Hollywood director this one time.
Their collaboration was The Night of the Hunter.
Mitchum had acquired quite a reputation, and not necessarily a positive one—partly true, partly media exaggeration, partly a careful camouflage of his own making to hide a different self. As the proverbial wild man, he didn’t give a d—— . . . well, put more politely, he didn’t care what people thought. He had been in jail for both fighting and marijuana possession and was a notorious womanizer, prankster, brawler and drinker.
As with many binge drinkers, he would clinically be a certified alcoholic, but in Mitchum’s case the affliction was a little harder to diagnose. He seemed able to control the drink’s influence: most of the time, he could be out all night carousing and be perfectly fit for filming the next morning. Maybe a little makeup under the eyes was all that was needed. At other times, he would be falling-down-drunk the next day, obnoxious and belligerent, completely unfilmable.
This was the dark side of Robert Mitchum. Aside from a robust rudeness to certain co-workers he disliked or felt incompetent, actresses in particular, in a possible “worst” moment, he once urinated on the seat of Paul Gregory’s Cadillac convertible, the producer, by the way, of The Night of the Hunter.
That other self so many observers suggest Mitchum was hiding was the intelligent side, an avid reader with an erudite knowledge of many things and a highly sophisticated conversationalist. He had an inborn distrust of pretentious individuals and a sensitivity for children, who always seemed to like him. For novice stars and people he liked, he was patient and helpful. He respected and admired, for instance, Deborah Kerr, his all-time favorite actress and co-star in a number of his films—Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Sundowners included. “The only leading lady,” Mitchum bragged, “I didn’t go to bed with.”
His partner in this venture of filming The Night of the Hunter, equally erudite, although not one to hide it, was Charles Laughton. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he made his first impressions as a film actor in the title roles of The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His last substantial role, meriting a Best Actor Oscar nomination, was as Sir Wilfrid Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution. He is best remembered as Captain William Bligh, also Oscar-nominated, in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. He became so famous for the role that, as Laughton related, “Every time I walk into a restaurant I get not only soup but an impersonation of Captain Bligh.”
He felt more at home on stage, both as a performer and as a director. He had considerable success on Broadway directing Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. And in the 1950s a later generation of TV fans became aware of him through his dramatic readings, most notably from Shakespeare and the Bible.
Laughton was introduced to Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter in its pre-publication galley proofs by that same Paul Gregory whose Cadillac would suffer that baptismal indignity during filming. To write the script, the two men selected James Agee, best known for a supposed shared screenplay with John Huston for The African Queen, though actually the final script was the work of Huston and Peter Viertel. An alcoholic and slow writer, who refused to show his work until it was finished, Agee would die before the film was released. Subject to periods of uncontrollable sobbing, he was, according to Gregory, a man “tormented by something.”
Herein lies some disagreement as to exactly which part of Agee’s words, if any, ended up on the screen. Some sources indicate both Laughton and Mitchum reworked the script, and according to Lee Server’s excellent biography of Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care—highly recommended, by the way—Laughton rewrote the script. Other sources, now taken to be closer to the truth, suggest Laughton filmed exactly what Agee wrote.
Grubb’s story is set during the 1930s Depression in West Virginia, along the Ohio River. The psychopathic Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum), known simply as “Preacher,” is a self-elected killer of prostitutes and other women of doubtful repute. He is convicted for car theft and thrown in a cell with a condemned murderer, Ben Harper (Peter Graves). When Preacher is unsuccessful in getting Harper to reveal the whereabouts of a stolen $10,000, he believes the clue lies in Harper’s dying words, something about “a little child shall lead them.”
Believing Harper’s two young children, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and John (Billy Chapin), will lead him to the money, he woos and marries their widowed mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). On their wedding night, he tells her they won’t consummate their marriage because sex is sinful. He slits her throat and throws her body into the river.
The children flee downstream—the money is in Pearl’s doll—and find refuge in a gun-toting, hymn-singing old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who sees through Powell’s religious chicanery and defends the children against him. Powell is arrested and sentenced to death.
Both Warner Brothers and Columbia turned down The Night of the Hunter, and when United Artists accepted it, Laughton plunged wholeheartedly into preparing himself for what he thought was a challenging and imaginative project. He viewed a number of D. W. Griffith silent movies and learned from cinematographer Stanley Cortez the workings of the motion picture camera. The alliance between Laughton and Cortez, much like the shared vision of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane, would inspire the old-fashioned and, at the same time, original look of the film.
To use a word appropriate to the story, color would have been an “abomination,” so The Night of the Hunter was properly and beautifully filmed in black and white. The camera shots were often improvised from day to day, resulting in surrealistic and naturalistic images—distorted perspectives, abundant shadows, silhouettes and large portions of black screen. This syntax of the silent film extends to the long since discarded mechanical iris, a form of the wipe, where a diminishing or expanding circle of visual interest leaves the rest of the screen black.
In another silent film technique by a silent star veteran, at the end of Grubb’s tale, Gish looks directly into the camera and says, “You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” And this might be added about children who, at the age of five, can relate in great detail how Santa Claus is able to deliver all those gifts in one night: their innocence is all the more touching because of the foreknowledge that soon they will acquire those sophisticated traits of the fully hardened, sometimes cynical adult.
Even the spoken word in The Night of the Hunter shares a kinship with the visuals, at times archaic, at other times poetic, emphasizing that this is, after all, a morality play, an exposition on the power and savagery—and, yes, the spreading influence—of evil. There is even stand-ins for the Greek chorus—a choir of “Dream, Little One, Dream” behind the main title, a group of school children singing “Hing, Hang, Hung” and picnickers voicing “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
Most of The Night of the Hunter was shot on studio sound stages, with some filming along the Ohio River.
As for Mitchum, dressed in symbolic black as Preacher, he gives one of his best performances, some critics say the best of his career. So menacing and chilling was his portrayal of evil that Laughton had to rein him in on several occasions. He seems most terrifying in silhouette, or on horseback, especially when singing, a cappella, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Tattooed on the finger knuckles of one hand is “LOVE,” on the other “HATE.” Years later, in Master and Commander in 2003, the idea would be reprised on an old sailor’s knuckles: now the words are “HOLD” and “FAST.”
Mitchum’s abhorrence of hypocrites, especially the self-righteous, was well expressed by his wife, Julie: “Bob told me he was going to do [this picture] to show people not to follow some character because he’s got a Bible in his hands, or because he’s got his collar on backwards, to alert people to these kinds of characters. And he was always very sympathetic to the exploitation of children . . . ”
Typical of Mitchum’s bad side, he mistreated Winters during filming, as did Laughton, for that matter. Originally, Laughton wanted Betty Grable for the role, an apparent exercise in casting against type, and it would have been interesting to see how the singer/dancer would have handled the role. Another consideration, Teresa Wright, seems even more a potential for miscasting. Winters, or at least her wax double, is part of the film’s most memorable and surrealistic scene, Willa’s dead body sitting in a Model-T at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting in the current like women’s hair in some of Alphonse Mucha’s posters. The filming was done in a studio tank, the cameraman in scuba gear, as the Ohio River was too muddy.
Composer Walter Schumann incorporated many traditional hymns into his sometimes sentimental, sometimes starkly dramatic score, including three songs of his own, but the idée fixe is Preacher’s ominous rendition of that one hymn, also sung by Gish in a less sinister manner. A synopsis of the film was once released on an LP featuring Laughton’s narration and Mitchum’s voice, with Schumann’s music.
By name alone, Walter Schumann may be generally unknown, but aside from this, his most famous film score, he released in the early 1950s a series of popular easy-listening LPs under the title The Voices of Walter Schumann and in 1949 wrote the theme for a new radio program, Dragnet, the four-note motif lifted from the opening of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. He is not to be confused with the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, William Schuman (1910-1992), the great German composer, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), nor, in a less convincing name-spelling, with Gerard Schurmann, the principal orchestrator of Lawrence of Arabia.
The Night of the Hunter was remade for TV in 1991. Unimaginatively photographed and about as frightening as the primmest of nursery rhymes—it was in color, after all!—the only thing macabre about Preacher was not the portrayal of him but Richard Chamberlain’s pale acting of the role.
The movie that Charles Laughton had been so enthusiastic about making, and had approached with such diligence and excitement, was a disappointing failure, both at the box office and according to most critics of the day. Laughton, who had been scheduled to direct next The Naked and the Dead (eventually directed by Raoul Walsh), never got behind a camera again. The movie is now highly regarded—and for all the ingredients that made it so unique at the time. It is worthy of a place on a list of the one hundred greatest films of all time. The American Film Institute (AFI), for one, has not yet seen fit to so honor it.
Laughton always had a good word for Robert Mitchum, and once said, “He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully—when he wants to.” Of course Laughton had seen, too, Mitchum’s other side, that dark side, his doppelgänger, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “little shadow that goes in and out,” not unrelated to Sigmund Freud’s id, that other side that exists, however dormant or camouflaged, in all of us.