“The Night of the Hunter”: Davis Grubb’s ‘river book’ and Charles Laughton’s classic film are marvels to behold

By on July 12, 2015

Let’s declare this “National The Night of the Hunter Week.” Only last week, Davis Grubb’s remarkable 1953 novel, unavailable in a legitimate U.S. edition for many years, was republished by Vintage Books. This Wednesday (July 15), Charles Laughton’s 1955 film adaptation of the book – the greatest one-shot directorial effort of all time – will be aired on Turner Classic Movies (check your local listings). Both of these marvels demand your attention.

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In her introduction to the new Vintage edition, novelist and journalist Julia Keller notes that Grubb’s work of fiction, his first book, was based in a real-life case he knew well, for it unfolded in his backyard.

In 1931, following a tip from Illinois police, West Virginia police arrested a Dutch immigrant who called himself Harry F. Powers, but also went by several aliases. A search of Powers’ garage in the town of Quiet Dell unearthed the bodies of two women and three children. An investigation found that Powers had met the women via newspaper lonely-hearts columns and had killed them for their money.

After a two-hour September 1931 siege of the Clarksburg jail by an angry lynch mob, Powers was transferred to the West Virginia state penitentiary in Moundsville – Davis Grubb’s hometown. There, on March 18, 1932, following a sensational trial, Powers, “the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” was hanged for his crimes.

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It would have been easy for Grubb to turn Powers’ sordid, brutal crimes into a potboiler; in fact, the case was later recapitulated by Jayne Anne Phillips in her 2013 novel Quiet Dell. But Grubb strived for a deeper affect, and The Night of the Hunter is a unique mixture of many things: thriller, horror story, moral drama, even fairy tale.

In an early chapter, nine-year-old John Harper, the book’s true hero, tells a bedtime story to his four-year-old sister Pearl that metaphorically encapsulates the narrative’s early action: “There was this rich king and he had a son and a daughter and they all lived in a castle over in Africa. Well, one day the king got carried away by bad men…and before he got carried off he told this son to kill anyone that tried to steal their god. Well it wasn’t long before the same bad men came back to get the gold…”

Not long after John spins his tale, an enormous shadow falls on the wall of the bedroom he shares with his sister. It is the dark manifestation of his monstrous adversary.

His name is Harry Powell, called “Preacher” by most. Unlike the pudgy, bespectacled Harry F. Powers, Powell presents himself as a charismatic, hymn-singing itinerant minister. He is in fact a thief and a switchblade-toting murderer who has left a trail of corpses behind him in the Depression-era South. He has slain so many widows for their money that he can no longer count his victims. (“You can’t kill the world,” the misogynistic villain says, with some regret, at one point.)

Jailed in the Moundsville penitentiary for car theft, Powell learns that his cellmate Ben Harper, after killing two men in a bank robbery, has hidden $10,000 in loot, but Harper goes to the gallows without revealing the location of the money. Freed, Powell travels to Harper’s hometown, nearby Cresap’s Landing on the shore of the Ohio River, to locate the cash.

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There Powell – who mesmerizes the townsfolk with a pantomime of the battle between love and hate, played out with his tattooed hands — woos and weds Ben Harper’s ill-fated widow Willa. John, however, is instantly suspicious about Preacher’s intentions, and Powell quickly learns that the boy is hiding the money’s location from him.

Terrorized by Powell and rejected or abandoned by any adult who might protect or save them, John and Pearl flee with the money down the Ohio in their father’s small skiff, with Preacher in hot pursuit. The children are finally taken in by Rachel Cooper, a flinty, devout, goodhearted widow who, shunned by her own adult son, now houses and raises stray, homeless youngsters she plucks off the roads. (“It’s a hard world for little things,” she says.) Accepted without question by this tough new protector, John finds himself finally safe: “…[H]is heart was curiously warm within him with the unreasonable illusion that he had come home.”

Inevitably, the inexorable Powell materializes for a faceoff with Miz Cooper, setting up a dramatic conclusion – a confrontation between the murderous, hypocritical Preacher and the human embodiment of the goodness his crimes have mocked and attacked.

Miz Cooper says in the tale’s last pages, during a finale staged, fittingly, on Christmas day, “Lord save little children! Because with every child ever born of woman’s womb there is a time of running through a shadowed place, an alley with no doors, and a hunter whose footsteps ring brightly along the bricks behind him.”

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Grubb spins his story in that language of heightened lyricism, intensified on the stillness of pages bereft of quotation marks. While he moves his story with bullet-like velocity, he also crafts scenes of dreamlike intensity. The Night of the Hunter is a classically wrought tale of crime and suspense, but this moonstruck book is also a deftly crafted nocturne capable of stirring deeper emotions and reveries within the reader.

The novel Grubb called his “river book” instantly became that rare thing, a simultaneous aesthetic and commercial triumph. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list. The movie rights were snapped up by agent and producer Paul Gregory, who saw it as a perfect debut directorial vehicle for his principal client, a celebrated British actor then enjoying renewed fame as a star of one-man theatrical readings and a director of hit Broadway plays.

By 1953, Charles Laughton had been active in the movies for two decades after a distinguished stage career in London’s West End. He had won an Academy Award playing the titular monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and had starred in such popular American features as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny On the Bounty. Though his acting career began to wane in the late ‘40s, he scored a huge hit in 1954 as the director of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a theatrical adaptation of Herman Wouk’s bestseller The Caine Mutiny, produced by Gregory.

Laughton and Gregory agreed that Grubb’s book was an ideal film property, and they assembled an extraordinary team to realize it. Before the cameras rolled, the neophyte director undertook a pre-production collaboration with the novelist. Grubb had studied art at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, and he sent Laughton more than 100 sketches (now housed in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s Margaret Herrick Library) visualizing several scenes, many of which the director would later carefully duplicate in his film.

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To write the screenplay, Laughton hired James Agee. At that point, the hard-living writer was possibly the most-read film critic in America, having served as critic for Time and The Nation through the ‘40s. In 1951, he had collaborated on the script for John Huston’s hugely successful, Oscar-winning The African Queen.

Agee was the ideal candidate to pen The Night of the Hunter for the screen. He wrote in a forcefully lyrical voice not dissimilar to Grubb’s. He undoubtedly also saw his own work in the novelist’s. His 1941 non-fiction book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a poetic, impressionistic on-the-ground study of three Depression-era Alabama farm families, published with a gallery of evocative photographs by Walker Evans. The autobiographical novel on which he had labored since 1948, which in 1957 would become the posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner A Death in the Family, focused like Grubb’s on a youngster’s household torn asunder by unexpected tragedy.

Agee turned in a mammoth 293-page draft screenplay that was ultimately edited and shaped by Laughton (for whom Agee finally, and unsuccessfully, lobbied to the Writers Guild for co-writing credit). In its filmed form, the script captured the intensity of Grubb’s plot and the beauty of his prose in near-total fidelity to the source. Agee did not live to see the finished picture: He died after a massive heart attack in May 1955, two months before its premiere.

Likewise, director of photography Stanley Cortez’s skills were ideally matched to Grubb’s material. A master of black-and-white cinematography whose best-known work at that point was on Orson Welles’  The Magnificent Ambersons, Cortez brought his formidable visual gifts to bear on the project.

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Cortez shot some sequences with the nighttime chiaroscuro of such noir masters as John Alton; in some scenes, the action is compressed within frames of oppressive, suffocating blackness, with whole sections of the screen violently cropped. Yet The Night of the Hunter is by no means pure film noir, though it is often categorized as such. Several pastoral passages have an alfresco glow one associates with the silent works of D.W. Griffith, whose features Laughton and Agee viewed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Credit the director and photographer with the seamless mating of images both Stygian and sun-dappled.

All of the most refined aspects of Cortez’s work are on view in a long and visually thrilling sequence that follows John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) in their flight on the river, with Preacher hot on their heels. The stark and stylized sets, built on David O. Selznick’s former lot in Culver City, were designed, with an eye to various German Expressionist forebears, by art director Hilyard Brown.

Few motion pictures have ever been cast as adeptly as The Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s masterstroke was assigning Robert Mitchum to portray Preacher Harry Powell. Sleepily laconic in his previous starring vehicles – Crossfire, Out of the Past, The Lusty Men, Angel Face – Mitchum stirred up a fury before Laughton’s camera. His Preacher spouts a torrent of dissembling talk, and his performance is one of powerful, sometimes outré physicality, and it does not eschew pure comedic slapstick. You can’t take your eyes off him.

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His co-star was Shelley Winters, playing Willa Harper. She gives a performance of considerable power and pathos as the wildly manipulated widow; there is one moment, when she discovers Preacher in a violent outburst against the innocent Pearl, which is monumentally affecting in its flickering expression of surprised, stunned disbelief. It’s another great entry in her distinguished gallery – in A Double Life, A Place in the Sun, and Lolita – of ill-fated victims.

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The young performers hold their own among these experienced practitioners. At 10, Billy Chapin was already a veteran of film and stage work; his tow-headed, intuitive, steely John Harper gives the film much of its gravity. Five-year-old Sally Jane Bruce is a wee rough-cut diamond. With huge, expressive eyes, a querulous baby’s voice, and an immense moon face framed by ringlets, her Pearl is at once down-to-earth and distinctly otherworldly.

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The film’s beating heart, and the director’s logical choice to play Rachel Cooper, is Lillian Gish, the immortal star of Griffith’s silent masterworks The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Way Down East. She is the story’s moral center, and she embodies it without a trace of acting affectation or effort. Her reserve as Miz Cooper is a delightful and surprising contrast to Mitchum’s over-the-top Preacher; in her scenes with him, he performs with the outsized gestures of silent movie-making, while Gish plays as naturalistically as the most modern of actresses.

We get to see these two wonderful actors in literal duet, singing Preacher’s ominous theme song, the hymn “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms,” in a fantastic scene near the film’s climax.

The Night of a Hunter was a one-of-a-kind movie, but United Artists, which distributed the independent production, had no idea how to sell the picture, which Paul Gregory had wanted to release as a road-show attraction in prestige houses. It was hamstrung by a misbegotten publicity campaign that gave no hint of the film’s unique look. In many cases, the film wound up getting dumped onto double bills with another Mitchum vehicle, the lumbering medical drama Not As a Stranger.

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The picture was a colossal and almost universally misunderstood box office flop, and Charles Laughton never directed another film. In declining health, he played out the remainder of his career with acting appearances in Witness For the Prosecution, Spartacus, and Advise & Consent before his death in 1962.

Happily for moviegoers, The Night of the Hunter has only grown in reputation in the years since its theatrical failure, and it is now acknowledged as a classic. Its production has been the subject of two worthy and fascinating full-length books, by Preston Neal Jones and Jeffrey Couchman. The picture was lovingly restored in 2001 by the UCLA Film & Television Archive; the school’s archivist Robert Gitt later assembled 80,000 feet of outtakes donated by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester into the astonishing two-and-a-half hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter.” In 2008, the prestigious French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma named Laughton’s film the second-greatest of all time, after Welles’ Citizen Kane.

To borrow a line from Miz Rachel Cooper, The Night of the Hunter abides, and it endures.

 

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).