FILM CRITIC Pauline Kael called THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER one of the most terrifying movies ever made. A psychotic fundamentalist preacher hunts and tries to murder two orphaned children to get $10,000 they have hidden. The money was stolen from a bank by their father, who killed two men to get it. The setting is rural West Virginia during the Depression.
Surely this was not what moviegoers were expecting in 1955—or ever. Yet the film was adapted from a best-selling, critically acclaimed novel and is faithful to it.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER spent four months on the The New York Times bestseller list and was a contender for the 1955 National Book Award. (The movie trailer says that it “gripped millions.”) It was selected for the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series—a big deal in the 1950s. The novel had everything going for it when its film rights were sold. Those rights did not go cheap either: they were sold for $80,000 ($677,000 in 2012 dollars).
But audiences stayed away, and reviews were mixed. Its director, Charles Laughton, never directed another movie.
The movie has had its reputation justly rehabilitated. It has an 8.8 rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.2 at IMDb . It is on the National Film Registry. In 2002, Cahiers du cinéma ranked it as the second most beautiful film ever made.
But the fine novel on whose back the movie stands is out of print. Its author, Davis Grubb (1919-1981), has been forgotten. He and his book deserve to have their reputations rehabilitated, too.
To read an excerpt from THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, scroll down to the bottom of the blog. If you know the movie, the scene will be familiar.*
Here are a few facts about Davis Grubb:
- He was born in Moundsville, West Virginia.
- His father was an architect; his mother, a social worker.
- He wanted to be an artist, but had to give up the ambition because he was color blind.
- The Night of the Hunter was his first published novel.
- Two of his stories were adapted for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR; one was adapted by Rod Serling for NIGHT GALLERY.
- His novel Fools’ Parade was made into a movie starring James Stewart. It was Stewart’s last film appearance.
- His definition of sin: to do nothing.
The Book (1953)
The Night of the Hunter is based on a true story. The fictional preacher Harry Powell had a real-life counterpart named Harry Powers, a West Virginia serial killer who murdered two widows and three children before he was caught and hanged in 1932. A lynch mob 3000 strong wanted him for themselves, but the police used tear gas to prevent this.
Harry Powers found his victims by answering and sometimes running ads in lonely hearts magazines. So does Harry Powell. This detail was omitted from the movie because it is backstory, but if you were wondering, that is how he found the other women he murdered,
The book is a true original—a quality it shares with the movie.
The Movie (1955)
Harry Powell using his tattooed hands to enact the fight between LOVE and HATE, Icey Spoon’s comment about thinking of her canning during sex, the horrifying sequence in the cellar—all are in the book, down to the last detail. Think of any iconic scene or memorable line of dialogue. Chances are it was taken almost verbatim from the novel.
The only scene not in the book is the first one, when Lillian Gish reads from the Bible, surrounded by children—all talking heads set in a night sky of stars. That scene gives the movie an otherworldly feeling right from the start. It floats in dreamtime. Roger Ebert called it a “stylized nightmare.”
The movie is a noir fairy tale. (Think of the Grimm fairy tales before they were cleaned up and declawed.) Robert Mitchum, who is phenomenal as the preacher Harry Powell, is a demon in human form. Lillian Gish, who plays the mountain woman Rachel Cooper, is his angelic opposite—just as tough and hard as he is, but on the side of good. The river, which sparkles with unearthly lights (night and day), takes on mystic significance.
One fairy tale-like element in the book that the movie had to omit because there was no way to translate it into black and white is the way the police are described as “the blue men.” As in, “John watched the blue men take his father away.”
Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the greatest of all American films,” thinks that what did it in with audiences was its lack of “proper trappings.” Charles Laughton was not known for directing, Robert Mitchum had a threatening onscreen presence, the children were not cute, and the movie—heavy on German expressionism—looked just plain strange.
If you like the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the novel. It is available from secondary sellers on Amazon and Abebooks.
You will learn things about the characters’ backstory, the world in which they live, and details of the hunt that the film version had to omit. For example, if you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens on Willa Harper’s second wedding night. But you don’t know what happens on her first, when she is with the father of her children.
There are three books about the making of the movie: The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film by Jeffrey Couchman and Heaven and Hell To Play With by Preston Neal Jones, and The Night of the Hunter ((BFI Film Classics) by Simon Callow.
*Leaning, leaning! Safe and secure from all alarms!
Leaning, leaning! Leaning on the everlasting arms!
In the distance John saw him on the road, emerging suddenly from behind a tall growth of redbud half a mile away: a man on a huge field horse, moving slowly and with a dreadful plodding deliberation up the feathery dust of the river road. The figure of the man and horse were as tiny as toys in that perspective and yet, even in those diminished proportions, John could make out each dreadful and evil line of those familiar shoulders. Now in a dozen farms on both sides of the river the hound dogs had come out to bark at the sound of the singing, and a tan beagle bitch emerged suddenly from beneath the porch of the farmhouse just below the barn and raced braying to the gate to herald the singer’s passing. But the singing did not stop and the figure, moving still in that infinitely sinister slowness, passed directly below the house and was obscured again by a tall growth of pawpaws and still the voice continued unabated while John huddled in the hay with thundering heart. And even long after he had passed, faded down the road, lost in the moonbeams of the lower farms, John could still hear the faint, sweet voice and he thought: Don’t he never sleep?
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.