‘The Night of the Hunter’: The Extraordinary Single Directorial Entry in Charles Laughton’s Career

“Watching Charles Laughton direct children, direct Bob Mitchum, direct the great Lillian Gish to craft this movie, I've never seen anything like it,” film historian Alan K. Rode said. “He was such a perfectionist, but he directed it by reaching in, (with) the actors giving to him rather than him extracting some sort of performance or intimidating or blustering.”

By Sven Mikulec

Charles Laughton was a respected English actor with a solid career in Hollywood, but his interests stretched beyond his praiseworthy work in front of the camera or on stage. He wanted to direct a film, and producer Paul Gregory thought David Grubb’s bestselling novel ‘The Night of the Hunter’ was a perfect opportunity for Laughton to make his filmmaking debut. When Robert Mitchum agreed to play the most important role of the film, a budget was quickly secured and Laughton’s adventure was ready to begin. However, the film’s poor box office results really hit Laughton pretty hard, making him give up on the idea of returning to the director’s chair. The fact that The Night of the Hunter is the only film he ever directed somehow makes this project even more special. As years and decades went by, Laughton’s movie garnered more and more respect. Today, sixty years upon that fateful box office disappointment, Laughton’s name is written in permanent marker in the book of greatest filmmakers that ever lived, as the movie is often cited as one of the most important and influential films in the history of American cinema.

James Agee penned the script, or at least the first couple of drafts of it. The famed author, who wrote ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ unfortunately suffered from a strong addiction to alcohol, and it fell upon Laughton’s back to polish the allegedly ludicrously lengthy script into a usable screenplay. Working with the renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez, on the other hand, was a delight for the filmmaking debutant. Cortez later stated that, apart from The Magnificent Ambersons, this film was his most exciting experience in Hollywood, at the same time giving a huge compliment to the director, saying Laughton and Welles were the only directors he ever worked with that really understood the power and subtleties of light and its usage in film. Furthermore, Robert Mitchum considers The Night of the Hunter one of his most impressive roles. Gentle, subtle and seductive, but deranged and psychotic, Mitchum’s character is one of the scariest villains in film history. Since the film’s story is portrayed as if seen through the eyes of the children, trying to escape an evil, greedy monster of a man, it’s easy to see the film as a unique, poetic and more than slightly macabre fairy tale, a film that haunts you and troubles you long after you see it. It’s one of the most memorable movies we’ve ever seen, and without a trace of doubt, deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with each and every other great American film of its fame and stature.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: James Agee’s screenplay for The Night of the Hunter [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The film has been cited among critics as one of the best of the 1950s, and has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress. At the time of its original release, however, it was a critical and box-office failure, and Laughton never directed again. The documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter by Robert Gitt (2002) features preserved rushes and outtakes with Laughton’s audible off-camera direction.

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Legendary cinematographer Stanley Cortez on shooting The Night of the Hunter and working with Charles Laughton: “The sharp contrasts in this picture, that was strictly my invention, and fortunately Charles agreed with that interpretation… (Film stock) Tri-X had first come out around then, and I had used it on Black Tuesday, where I experimented with a scene shot entirely by the light of one candle. I understand Mr. Kubrick is saying that Barry Lyndon is the first feature to shoot scenes with nothing but the light from some candles, but actually our scene with just one candle was the first. Anyway, the sensitivity on the Tri-X was faster than on the (filmstock) we were used to using. I used it on The Night of the Hunter not because of the technical phase but strictly for its dramatic properties. I wanted those deep blacks, because I felt that it would give me an added dramatic punch in there when a sequence called for it. I’m a firm believer in black. I don’t want to use the word ‘startle,’ but it holds you, like a diamond and its reflections, it magnetizes you.” —Stanley Cortez



Davis Grubb was still an unknown copywriter living and working in Philadelphia when producer Paul Gregory came across the pre-publication galleys of Grubb’s debut novel, The Night of the Hunter. Gregory scooped up the book for his business partner, Charles Laughton, who had been looking for a property to direct. After he read it, an excited Laughton told the producer, “You’ve got your finger right on my pulse. I would love to direct this.” —Davis Grubb, Charles Laughton, and The Night of the Hunter

Lillian Gish once said, “I’ve never been in style, so I can never go out of style.” The silent-screen legend was being modest, but she was clearly on to something—something that Charles Laughton grasped when he cast her as the good to Robert Mitchum’s evil in his oddball directorial opus, The Night of the Hunter (1955). —Out of Time: Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter



Hugely influential and utterly beautiful in a terrifyingly horrid fashion, this rare album was issued with Laughton narrating the story of the film he directed, and included the astonishing songs as well. Superb.

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Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, art director Hilyard Brown, producer Paul Gregory, editor Robert Golden, second unit director Terry Sanders and cinematographer Stanley Cortez talks about Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.

Howard Schuman discusses the only film that Charles Laughton directed, one that is now seen as a classic example of American Gothic but which was a critical and financial failure on its release in 1955. Interviewees include Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lilian Gish and various members of the production crew.

As a guest curator on the Criterion Channel series Adventures in Moviegoing, the Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro introduces Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece The Night of the Hunter.

Here’s another fascinating compilation of photographs taken behind-the-scenes during production of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter © Paul Gregory Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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