The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller directed by Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The screenplay by James Agee was based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb. The plot focuses on a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal $10,000 hidden by her executed husband. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and said, “Nobody who has seen ‘The Night of the Hunter’ has forgotten it.” Quite simply, The Night of the Hunter is the best, if not the first, of all Southern Gothic films.
Laughton considered casting Gary Cooper as Harry Powell, but Cooper did not accept the role as it might be detrimental to his career. Laurence Olivier and John Carradine expressed interest in the role of the reverend.
Robert Mitchum was eager for the part as the terrifying Reverend Harry Powell. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as “a diabolical shit” and Mitchum promptly answered, “Present!” His portrayal of the menacing religious misogynist who marries widows for their money and kills them off in the name of the Lord is one of the best of his career.
The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The film’s lyrical and expressionistic style with its leaning on the silent era sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and it has influenced later directors such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers.
In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, behind Citizen Kane. And you will not find a “Best Southern Gothic Films” list that doesn’t have The Night of the Hunter at, or near, the top of it.
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