Classic Cinema #34: The Night of the Hunter (1955) – By Jason S. Lockard

My name is Jason S. Lockard, and I love films that make your heart pound. Thrilling films that have your sitting on the edge of your seat and they very rarely come more thrilling than 1955’s The Night of The Hunter with Star of the Month Charles Laughton in his directorial debut.

Charles Laughton was born on July 1, 1899 in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, the son of Robert Laughton, a Yorkshire hotel keeper, and his wife Eliza. Charles served during World War I first with the 21st Battalion of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Regiment and later with the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

He started work in the family hotel business, while participating in amateur theatricals in Scarborough. He was allowed by his family to become a drama student at RADA in 1925, and made his first professional stage appearance on April 28, 1926 at the Barnes Theatre, as Osip in the comedy The Government Inspector.

In 1927, Charles began a relationship with Elsa Lanchester, a fellow cast mate in a stage play. Two years later they The two were married and became American citizens together in 1950. They remained together until Laughton’s death.

Over the years, they appeared together in several films, including Rembrandt (1936), Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Big Clock (1948), The Private Life of Henry VIII it which he won his only academy award and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Charles Laughton would star in some of the greatest films in cinema history including: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Captain Kidd (1945), and he even spoofed his iconic pirate image his role in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952), but in 1955 Charles Laughton would try his hand in directing and what would come is one of the best thrillers ever.

The Night of the Hunter is set in 1930s West Virginia. Ben Harper is sentenced to hang for his part in a robbery in which two men were killed. Before he is caught he hides the stolen money, trusting only his son John, with the money’s location. John has a much younger sister, Pearl. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a serial killer and self-appointed preacher with the two words "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed across the knuckles of his right and left hands, shares a prison cell with Harper. He tries to get Harper to tell him the hiding place before his execution, but the only clue he gets is a Bible verse Harper mutters in his sleep: "And a little child shall lead them."

Powell is convinced that Harper told his children the secret, So Powell woos and marries Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Unaware of his motive she believes her marriage will lead to her salvation. On night Willa overhears her husband questioning the children and she realizes the truth. As she lies in bed that night in their bedroom, Powell leans over her and slits her throat. He dumps her body in the river. Now it is just the Killer Powell and the children. Will he find out the location of the money? Do the kids really know? If So will Powell live long enough to spend the money? These questions are answered when you watch The Night of the hunter!

Charles Laughton’s directorial debut was not a success with either audiences or critics, and as a result Laughton never directed another film. When I watch the film it was one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever seen. It’s a shame Laughton never directed again, who know what other cinema gems he could have brought us!

The Night of the Hunter was rated #34 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills ranking, #90 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Powell was ranked No. 29 in the villains column in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains. In 1992, the Library of Congress deemed the film to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected the film for preservation in its National Film Registry.

On December 15, 1962 Charles Laughton died after a long battle with cancer of the kidney; he was 63. Charles was cremated and laid to rest in a marbled crypt at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California

Until next time this is Jason S. Lockard reminding you if you want to see a good film, check out a classic!

Moral Rating: Adult themes
Audience: Parental Guidance
Genre: Thriller
Length: 1 hr. 45 min.
Released: 1955
Our Rating: A+