Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is the most marvellous film. Based on the 1953 novel of the same name, by Davis Grubb, it is haunting and terrifying in equal measure, but still manages to leave the audience with hope at its conclusion. Ground-breaking for its time, it was directed by actor Charles Laughton, and while at the time it was a financial and critical failure, it is now held up as one of the great moments in cinema. Sadly, Laughton never directed another film.

By all accounts one of the things that made this film special was Laughton’s method of direction; keeping the camera rolling rather than stopping for new takes, talking with the actors instead of at them, taking on their thoughts and opinions as vital to the film.

Peter Graves did not have a large role in this film, but it was a pivotal one, as so many of his parts seem to be. He plays Ben Harper, a  man desperate to provide more for his children during the hardship of the Great Depression. To this end he robs a bank and kills two men, and hides the money where he believes no one will find it. Only he and his son know where it is. Even in prison, facing execution, he will not reveal where the money is hidden. His cell mate, disturbed preacher Harry Powell, played by the outstanding Robert Mitchum, hears Ben talking about the money in his sleep, and intends to get it any way that he can.

Peter Graves’ scenes in this film are few, but intense. We see him driving up to the house, skidding to a stop and running from the car, hiding the money and urging his son to never tell anyone where it is. We see him being brought down and cuffed by police officers, and later we see him in a convict’s outfit in a jail cell, where he meets Mitchum. One of the best things to happen for Peter Graves’ acting is a great director, and Laughton draws a marvellous character out of him; vulnerable, scared, brave, determined, and full of love. Producer Paul Gregory said of him, ‘I’d seen the young actor, Peter Graves, and thought of him for the father. He was certainly good in this. There’s an enormous under-the-surface talent in him - I still think Peter has not had his moment.’ (Jones, Preston Neal. Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 2002. p.90)

There’s a long passage from the book I need to reproduce here that concerns both Laughton’s style of direction and Peter Graves’ experience while filming. (I hope this is considered fair use, since it is on a non-profit blog. I would seriously suggest buying this book if you are in any way a fan of this film.)

‘The film had only been shooting for a few days, and this was Peter Graves’ first day of work as Ben Harper. When the young actor asked Laughton a question about the character, (as he subsequently related to Miss Lanchester’s researchers), “Charles . . . took him to a corner of the set, and they sat on a wooden bench and talked quietly about his part. He was gentle and soft-spoken, but he immediately got to the roots of  the problem. He had a fabulous sense of communication with actors. A real desire and an ability at talking solidly about what he wanted.” And, what impressed Graves the most, he asked the young actor for his point of view. By way of contrast, a few months previously, Graves had been acting in The Long Gray Line, a film directed by the legendary John Ford. When, at one point, Graves had started to say, “About this character, I think...” Ford said, “Shut up. Don’t think in my picture.” Now, when Laughton called, “Cut and print” on the Hunter bunk scene, Graves went over to the director and asked, “Was that alright?” Charles replied, “You don’t have to ask that question. Do you think it was alright?” “Yes,” said Graves, “I think it was.” And, at that moment, he found himself thinking of phoning John Ford ... Going from working for Ford to working for Laughton, the actor decided, was like “walking into heaven.”’ (Jones, Preston Neal. Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc, 2002. pp. 147-8)

There is one extra scene from the story which is not to be seen in the film. It is a short extra filmed for the Ed Sullivan Show, and can be found on the special edition of the dvd, in which Ben Harper is visited by his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) in prison. It’s worth buying the special edition for this scene alone, along with the other special features such as a documentary on the making of the film. The dvd contains a two and a half hour ‘treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage,’ audio commentary, a documentary, and various interviews and other features.

Here are some promos and screenshots from the film and the Ed Sullivan Show. A lovely little collection of behind the scenes photos can be found here, on the BFI website, although only one features Peter Graves. One day, I hope to do my own screencaps of the Peter Graves parts of the film.

Ben crouches down to talk to his son John (Billy Chapin) about hiding the money,
after the robbery before the police arrive.

Charles Laughton steps in to give direction to Billy Chapin, as John Harper.

A very similar shot to the first one, as Ben talks to his son, but the positions are a little different.

In this German lobby card the police have Ben Harper on the ground and are cuffing him.
Is the officer on the left holding his head out of kindness or as restraint?

Ben with the money in one hand and the gun in the other. Oh, hands...

The first of two behind the scenes shots with Robert Mitchum. How I wish there were film of this.

This second behind-the-scenes shot also has Laughton in it.

Ben in the jail cell. I'm not sure where this screenshot came from.
I would guess here but there's no watermark on my copy.

Below is a sequence of screenshots from the Ed Sullivan Show clip featuring Peter Graves and Shelley Winters performing live as Ben and Willa Harper, as Willa visits Ben in prison. Willa begs Ben to tell her where the money is hidden, but he refuses to tell her because he doesn’t trust her to be sensible with it. This scene does not occur in the film.


  1. You really ought to find some lobby cards of him from Stalag 17 there is this one where he's got a fiddle and I can't find it anywhere!

    1. Thank you :-) I do have some of those on my computer but I've never seen him with a fiddle! I'd love to see that!

    2. I saw it in the special features "From Reality to Screen" but I've never found the image itself anywhere else, and I've been completely unable to even screencap it, If you are able to get a hold of it could you let me know? That would be awesome :) .