director Charles Laughton
Unheralded and under-appreciated upon its initial release, The Night of the Hunter has still long been recognized and considered among the great noir films but also among the greatest films of all time. Most everyone knows that it was Charles Laughton’s only feature film as director, one he possibly didn’t live to see acknowledged for its brilliance. And most everyone also recognizes Robert Mitchum’s Reverand Harry Powell as one of film’s most terrifying villains, with his looming presence, lowing voice booming out the hymn “leaning, leaning…leaning on the everlasting arms,” and hands tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE”.
Some may know that the film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb. If you delve into the “extras” on the Criterion DVD, about the film’s production, you would learn that Laughton took the novel pretty straight-forwardly from Grubb’s original, and interestingly, Grubb, who had trained as an artist, provided some striking sketches for the film scenes, nearly 100 of them, inspiring some of the movie’s most indelible images.
(Side note, I just finished reading the 1953 novel and it’s very good.)
But probably much, much less known is that Grubb’s Preacher was inspired by a real life serial killer, a lonely hearts killer named Harry Powers who murdered young widows and their children in West Virginia. Grubb was born and raised in Moundsville, WV and was about 11 at the time of Powers’s notorious trial and hanging, which was nearly brought about by lynch mobs during his trial.
The book and the film center the perspective from the perspective of 10 year old John Harper, played in the film by the terrific Billy Chapin. Grubb transformed a real world monster into a nightmare figure, a killer as perceived by a child, a theme Laughton and his art director Hilyard M. Brown and cinematographer Stanley Cortez extend through their vision and mise en scène. Laughton envisioned the story as a fairy tale of sorts, using the wonderful Lillian Gish as the counterbalance of good, also an emblem of his inspiration from the films of the Silent Era, in particular the works of D.W. Griffith, as well as those of Expressionist Cinema.
I think it’s interesting that in the film Powell is cited as having murdered nearly 20 women, to embellish his evil and his crimes, an exaggeration that undercuts the numbers of the actual Harry Powers, but also shuts an eye to the gruesomeness of his true crimes.
Powers hasn’t necessarily been lost to history, but he’s a lesser known figure in the annals of American criminals at this point and time, an interesting disposition for the inspiration for one of cinema’s greatest villains.
The film is tremendous, only improves upon re-watching, certainly resonant after having read Grubb’s brilliant novel. An amazing, amazing film.