Starring Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters, Night of the Hunter is a famous film noir directed by Charles Laughton.

Set in West Virginia, Night of the Hunter flopped when it played movie houses in 1955, but it is now recognized as one of the great films of Hollywood. Indeed, in several current critical rankings, it has been accorded second place behind Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, among all-time great Hollywood movies.

It’s hard to understand why Night of the Hunter flopped when it first came out. It is a chilling, grab-your-seat scary film with a fine cast that merits all the praise given to them, the adaptation, and Laughton’s direction in the years since its release.

Prior to his lead role in Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum (as bogus Preacher Powell) was stuck in Hollywood’s ‘hunk’ corral rather than in its lead actor category, but in this film Mitchum excels as a cunning psychopath who embodies the essence of evil. Powell is jailed for a stealing a car and, quite improbably, shares a cell with a man (Peter Graves as Ben Harper) condemned to execution for murder while robbing a bank. In his sleep, Graves mumbles a clue to where his family lives and the bank money might be hidden.

Upon release, Mitchum heads to the small riverside village where the Harper family lives, wins the town’s respect as a Bible-quoting traveling preacher, courts and marries a distraught and fragile widow, Willa Harper, a character played by a young Shelley Winters, who had been in nearly 50 movies prior to Night of the Hunter, which set her on the movie mill toward stardom. Only Willa’s children sense Mitchum’s evil and know where the bank’s money is hidden.

For many film fans, silent movie legend Lillian Gish steals attention for her performance as an elderly woman with a spine of steel, a compassionate heart and religious conviction, living alone near the shotgun she knows how to use.

Night of the Hunter is the only film Mr Laughton ever chose to direct. It was a critical success, but Laughton returned to film acting, starring in 64 movies from 1928 until his death in 1962.

Night of the Hunter is classic film noir, a clash of good against evil, masterfully lit and shadowed in the expressionist mode by Louis DeWitt and Jack Rabin; enhanced with sound and music scored by Arthur Morton. Many filmmakers forgot, when movies began to talk, that the visual composition of a film remained as critical to a suspenseful movie as its pulsing sound.

The two elements are combined through Laughton’s direction, a great cameraman, Stanley Cortez, the music of Walter Schumann, and editing by Robert Golden. Most producers only handle the business end of making the movie. Among the few producers whose interests and involvement extended to the artistry of his films, producer Paul Gregory worked closely with Laughton to ensure quality. There is controversy as to who adapted the film script from David Grubb’s novel. James Agee’s script was novel length and not cinematic. Laughton insisted that Agee be credited, but those in the know claim it was his own rewrite that was filmed.

As recently as 2008, France’s highly respected film magazine Cahiers du Cinema claimed that Night of the Hunter was second only to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane—extravagant praise that is indicative of the respect for Night of the Hunter. So grab your remote, a snack and a drink. Then snuggle safely in your armchair and enjoy the thrill of a well-made scary film.

A fine copy now free online at