Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Night of the Hunter

Night of the Hunter, 1955

Night of the Hunter, 1955

We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.

For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.

13. Night of the Hunter, 1955

Night of the Hunter, more than any other movie I have ever seen, succeeds brilliantly in evoking the terrors of childhood.

Director Charles Laughton (Robert Mitchum is uncredited, but he directed the children) described it as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” Written by James Agee and Laughton, and based on a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Night of the Hunter is set in Depression-era West Virginia. Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powers, an ex-con who poses as a back-woods minister, marries widows for their money, and then murders them.

Mitchum’s Rev. Harry, silkily sinister with a voice like an oboe, has the word “love” tattooed on one set of knuckles, and “hate” on the other. Rarely has a film so elegantly and so chillingly announced its subject matter.

Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, 1955.

Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, 1955.

The plot has Mitchum on the trail of $10,000. Shirley Winters, known for her extravagant, over-the-top mannerisms, beautifully underplays Willa, a lonely and simple-minded widow, who marries Mitchum and brings to the marriage two small children, John and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). As frequently happens with children, John, played by Billy Chapin with steely-eyed suspicion, realizes that his stepfather is not the virtuous man of G-d everyone else sees. Forced to quickly grow up, John become his little sister’s protector.

Alone in the world, and on the run from their heartless and relentless stepfather, the children move through a dreamscape that is terrifying, surreal and poetic. The photography by Stanley Cortez (b. Stanislaus Krantz) recalls German expressionism of the 1920’s, but with a softer, more romantic edge. And the underwater images evoke a dream-like state which once seen is never forgotten.

Night of the Hunter has some of the most lyrical images in film history: the children escape their tormentor in a rowboat, gliding down a winding, moonlit river. As Pearl sings a haunting tune, a menagerie of animals—rabbits, birds, and a toad—watches over them.

Later in the film, Lillian Gish, as the pious Rachel Cooper, guards the children with a shotgun in hand. Poised in a rocking chair, she sings a gospel tune—an other-worldly duet with Mitchum—serene and prepared to do battle against the evil false minister.

The film was panned by the critics and ignored by the public when it was first released. Perhaps that’s why this was the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed.

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, 1955.

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, 1955.

Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, by Jeffrey Couchman, is an invaluable study of this cinematic masterpiece.

To be continued.

This entry was posted in Great Movies, Greatest Movies of the 1950s, Lillian Gish, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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  1. TheNonna
    Posted July 28, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    All of this comment isn’t strictly about this movie – but it seems as good a place as any. I have tried to make a mental note of the movies that you have listed for each era that I have not seen. As they have appeared on television I have watched them (or rather recorded to watch at leisure later) and just wanted to say thank you. Night of the Hunter is amazing and had me biting my nails. I just watched the re-edited version of Touch of Evil And boy, What a movie! While I don’t love charleston Hsston, the movie itself was phenomenal – oh gosh definitely recommending! (The fact that Dietrich, whom I LOVE, looked better & younger in her 50s than I did I my 30s is worth watching again!) I’ve also seen Gun Crazy and definitely respect your love. Now going back thru and writing down those titles I need to see as I’ve lost me list. Oh. and in taking a cue from you, I have compiled a list of 125 of my fave movies that I wish my grandchildren will watch in their lifetime.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 28, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink


      Thanks so much for your comment. I am happy and gratified that you have followed up on my list of great films. Enjoy!

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  2. Bob
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    This has always been one of my favorite films.  As noted, the music and cinematography were haunting.  It is a strong morality play that resonates even today.

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  3. Earl
    Posted March 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I found the ‘Night Of The Hunter’ DVD in a bargain bin for $5 today.  Touchdown!

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  4. pmrt7
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    You probably meant to type Shelly – rather than Shirley – Winters.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 5, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Thanks so much. My error, probably because her real name was Shirley Schrift.

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  5. Posted March 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Mitchum was a great talent and perfect for these roles. A family member once leased her Hollywood Hills house to him for a year while she was out of the country. When she got back, she noticed nothing amiss but one day her neighbor, Hugh O’Brian, an actor in a TV series, came by to suggest she have her gardener remove the marijuana field down the hill.

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  6. kgbudge
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    *Sigh* Another addition to my already bloated Amazon wish list. I should live so long.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink


      Night of the Hunter is a must.

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  7. DavidP
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Hi Robert,

    I saw this for the first time not long ago on Turner Classic Movies. I was fascinated. After doing a bit of research on the movie, I also was fascinated to learn that it was based on a true story — that of a serial killer named Harry F. Powers. Not only that, efforts to lynch Powers really happened. Or as an AP story that ran in the New York Times noted: “MOB SURROUNDS JAIL WHERE POWERS IS HELD; Attempt to Lynch West Virginia “Bluebeard” Feared–Tear Gas Keeps Crowd Back.”

    According to this news story, the mob was composed of 4,000 people. This was a revelation to me — because I always thought that lynchings in the South were crimes only carried out by whites against black. The truth is more complicated, as I subsequently learned, and this attempted lynching of a white serial killer– by white vigilantes — is one example.

    I had been wondering if you were going to profile “Night of the Hunter” and sure enough, you did. It’s a movie that, like “Ace In the Hole” and “Shane,” I plan to watch again. Thanks for your insights into this strange and haunting film.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink


      Indeed, the real Harry Powers murdered children and richly deserved the hangman’s noose. Today, he would sit on death row for for thirty years, write a best selling memoir about his awful childhood, and become the darling of the liberal media.

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  8. Johnny
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Had Lillian Gish been trained by Joe Biden on how to properly use that shotgun it could have been a whole different movie.
    But then no one in Hollywood was ever dumb enough to listen to Biden. I hope!
    Maybe if more kids saw this film they may not be so anxious to get tattoos. 
    And this movie really is creepy.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink


      It is a creepy movie—in a wonderful way.

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  9. ChiLynne
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Robert, probably just a typo but the author’s name is Davis Grubb.  I’m from West Virginia as was he.  And, yes, it is an astonishingly good and frightening movie and one of my favorites, too. 
    Can hardly begin to tell you how much I appreciate this blog. 

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink


      Corrected, thanks so much. Karen and I are so glad that you connect with our little corner of the internet.

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  10. Nickie Clifford
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I usually don’t comment on your movie posts as my own taste tends to run more toward the ‘A Room With a View’, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘Enchanted April’ (my mother and I are very fond of ‘A Stranger Among Us’:) genre. However, I distinctly remember this movie being a favorite of my mothers’ from her era (she’s in her ’70’s). Whenever it came on T.V. during my childhood my mom would exhort me to watch it with her.  I was really too young to be exposed to the theme (it was SCARY) but what really stuck with me through the years was that it was able to convey menace and terror without resorting to the gruesome and unnecessary graphic depictions we’ve devolved into.  

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink


      Night of the Hunter is incredibly restrained, and yet it is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen.

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  11. Matt
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m new to the discussions, but when you brought up this movie, Mr. Avrech, I felt compelled to jump in.
    The sheer creepiness of this movie cannot be overstated.  The visuals, wonderfully done in glorious black and white, are stark in their presentation.  The creepiest scene in the movie (for me) was when the children were sleeping in the hayloft of the barn and John watches Preacher Harry riding on a mule along a nearby ridge.  And all the while Harry’s singing that old hymn. 

    To this day I can’t hear that hymn and not think about this movie or that scene.  The terror of those children and the evil of Preacher Harry are so palpable. 

    On a side note:  The casting of Lillian Gish as Mrs. Cooper was brilliant.  In the book, Rachel Cooper is described as a stereotypical, slightly heavy grandmotherly-looking type of woman.  But, Lillian Gish wielding that shotgun against Robert Mitchum always makes me smile.  She was so slender and shorter than the hulking Mitchum that it created a wonderful David and Goliath contrast.  Great casting choice. 

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    • Larry
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      So far as I’m concerned, every movie with Lillian Gish was a great casting choice. Can’t think of a one that I’ve seen in which she was anything but marvelous.

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink


        I’ve never seen Lillian Gish give a bad performance.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink


      The music and sound effects in Night of the Hunter are key to its genius. Yes, it is creepy, but I think of it as a deeply moral cautionary tale.

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      • Matt
        Posted March 7, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        It has much to say about “knowing a tree by its fruit.”  Preacher Harry is a mesmerizing figure who is taken at face value when he should be thoroughly checked out.  Only John and Mrs. Cooper (and earlier in the film John’s father played by a young Peter Graves) see through the phoniness that is Harry Powers. 

        It seems that too many people these days don’t want to think about what they’re seeing and hearing but rather hold out for “hope” and all those other fuzzy buzz words that make them feel good.  They’d rather listen to those who would “tickle their ears” and not weigh the deeds of some against the words they speak. 

        Harry Powers is that figure that speaks well and commands attention but at a frightful cost.

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  12. Barry
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I feel about this film the way you do about Gigi. And, speaking of charmless, where is Robert Mitchum on the list…? As for Shelley Winters– Born to be butchered, at least in the movies.

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  13. Shyla
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    The scene where Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” gives me the shivers every time I see it–he so menacing, she so steely in her determination. “It’s a hard world for little things.” 

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink


      Love that scene. And then there’s a close-up of an owl watching a baby rabbit. The owl watches some more, then takes flight, and off-screen we hear the death of the baby rabbit. And that’s when Gish delivers the line you quote.

      Just brilliant.

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    • TheNonna
      Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I agree about this scene. As creeped out and hiding behind splayed fingers as I was during this entire movie (even at 53!), that one scene nearly put me over the edge!!! (In the event you don’t know, as a Southern Protestant I can assure you that hymns have been deemed as practically sacred in the rural places – the church my mother goes to won’t even sing Christmas Carols in church as they aren’t considered hymns!)
      But another thing I LOVED was the way Gish cut him off when he started telling the Love v. Hate Hands story! You know you wanted to just fist-pump her at that moment as it pretty much let Mitchum/Powers know how things were going to stand.
      And yes, I just watched this movie for the first time last week and have told nearly everyone I’ve spoken to how they need to watch it.
      (And how does a kid get the above image out of their head so they can sleep?!! I almost didn’t!)

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