10 Reasons Why “The Night of the Hunter” is a Classic of American Cinema

5. The River Sequence


This scene bridges the children’s escape from evil to finding sanctuary and does so in a very interesting, dream-like way. It’s calm, it’s mellow, but yet it never loses it’s atmosphere. Pearl is given the chance to sing a short song that reflects everything her and John have been through and it’s just chilling when combined with the images. The children have been through so much, yet you never feel like they’re allowed to finally breath and relax as the Preacher is constantly in pursuit.

The river scene is gorgeous and it has a lasting effect on the viewer. It’s probably the most fantastical the film ever gets and we’re never sure if it’s the dreams of the children or if all this whimsy is a reality. The scene is definitely a standout from an art direction and cinematography stand point, especially when the children come across a farm house and take shelter in it’s barn; it all looks amazing.


4. The Soundtrack

When I mention the soundtrack I’m not talking strictly about the score, which is really good, I’m talking everything from the score to the well-used singing that Laughton featured throughout. The Preacher is seen singing different hymns throughout the film and they become a character all their own, especially in the end with Rachel Cooper where they sing a duet. Singing is a big part of Southern culture, especially hymns, so it’s only natural that Laughton, though from the United Kingdom, would include it in the film.

Another important element of the film is the musical accompaniments and the score. Some of the most powerful uses of singing in the film were accompanied by little score pieces composed by Walter Schumann. For a perfect example of this, watch the river sequence mentioned earlier. Also, the main theme does a fantastic job giving the audience a musical tip-off during the opening credits of what the film’s tone will be like throughout. It has the gloomy horns that represent the Preacher and a softer melody accompanied by foreshadowing lyrics that one can attribute to representing the children. The music, combined with the images on screen, create a whirlwind of emotion and deserve the same credit the cinematography gets.


3. Stanley Cortez’s Cinematography

the night of the hunter cinematography

There’s a lot to appreciate about “The Night of the Hunter”, but I believe one of the most enduring qualities the film possesses is it’s amazing cinematography by Stanley Cortez. Cortez had impressed Laughton after working on Orson Welles’ sophomore film “The Magnificent Ambersons”. Cortez and Laughton worked together splendidly coming up with some very haunting scenes filled with atmosphere and shadow.

The two mixed their influences and styles together; Laughton’s coming from the classic silent cinema of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionist movement while Cortez had come from a background of shooting Noir films. The match was made in heaven and once you see this film, you’ll be unable to get some of the images out of your head.


2. Robert Mitchum’s Incredible Performance


The Preacher Harry Powell will go down in cinematic history as one of the most notorious and sinister villains of all-time. When compared to today’s standards of what makes a villain truly evil, one might consider him to be a bit tame – but Robert Mitchum’s presence as the character is what makes him stand out. When casting for the film, Director Charles Laughton was said to have described the Preacher as a “diabolical shit” to which Mitchum felt very akin to. Mitchum made a career of playing bad boy anti-heroes during his film noir days and brings a serpent-like quality to his performance.

Conviction and honesty is what makes Mitchum’s performance work as every line that comes from his mouth is near perfect as he honestly believes he’s Harry Powell and Harry Powell honestly believes his actions are in service to God. When watching “The Night of the Hunter” one can see many similarities between Powell and a greasy used car salesman as they use similar tactics to achieve a goal. While Powell may not be trying to sell a car, he’s attempting to make the town believe he’s a pious man of the cloth, which works on everyone but one young boy.


1. Charles Laughton’s Directing


“The Night of the Hunter” wouldn’t be what it is without the careful hand and creative eye of Charles Laughton, and though this was the only film he had ever made, he left a large impression on many filmmakers after him. Laughton, a seasoned actor in both film and on stage, had all the necessary tools at his disposal to make a great film.

After years of watching and working with some of the greatest directors of all-time, it was only natural that he’d want to apply his talents behind the camera. From performance, to the shots he chose and the style throughout, Laughton directed the heck out of this film. On the new Criterion Blu-Ray there’s a 2+ hour documentary all about Laughton’s directing style feature raw footage of him talking to and directing his actors. We’re able to see behind the lens and witness how some of the film’s iconic scenes came to be.

Sadly, when “The Night of the Hunter” was released, it was met with mixed reviews and didn’t make as big of a splash as Laughton had intended and he also died a couple years afterward. That being said, the impact Laughton made is finally being felt today as new generations discover his film and are able to appreciate his forward thinking that wasn’t understood back in 1955.

Author Bio: Michael Viers is an award winning filmmaker from Milwaukee, WI and a graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with a Bachelor’s Degree in film. He has made two successful short films during his stay at the university: From the Darkness Theatre which screened at the Short Film Corner at the 66th Festival de Cannes and Love You Still which debuted at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival. He’s currently trying to get more work writing articles about film, just wrapped his fourth short and is allocating resources to make his first feature.