The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (2024)

The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (1)

Chris Forrester considers the powerful legacy of 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, a nightmare-fueled noir with far-reaching iconography and themes.

There are films you can almost see without seeing. Famous images, lines of dialogue, and plot points from films likeStar Wars(Lucas, 1977),The Wizard of Oz(Fleming, 1939), andThe Shining(Kubrick, 1980) are so culturally ubiquitous that even without direct exposure, the average film-watcher can recognize their influence elsewhere; the shower scene fromPsycho(Hitchco*ck, 1960), for instance, has been invoked everywhere fromThe SimpsonstoPhantom of the Paradise(De Palma, 1974). Often, this ceaseless referencing is the product of popular films’ outsized influence — the way they seep into the culture such that their images become shorthand for a certain kind of zeitgeisty-ness. But not always.

Elsewhere, particularly in cases where the film being referenced is more significant as the work of a legendary filmmaker than as an especially prominent cultural text, borrowed images speak more to the cinephilia of certain filmmakers and the influence of certain films and artists on that cinephilia than on the zeitgeist specifically. InShutter Island(2010), Martin Scorsese references Powell and Pressburger’sThe Red Shoes(1948): a sobbing Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) pulling the red slippers from his drowned child in the former echoes the heartbroken Julian (Marius Goring) removing the red shoes from a dying Vicky (Moira Shearer).

The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (2)
The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (3)

One case, of the latter variety, in which the film’s abundant echoes across decades of cinema feel especially significant isThe Night of the Hunter(Laughton, 1955), such a failure upon release that its filmmaker never directed again and now so beloved that few films seem more “seen without being seen.” You’ve seen it inDo the Right Thing(Lee, 1989) when Radio Raheem flashes brass knuckles that spell LOVE on one hand and HATE on the other; inCape Fear(Scorsese, 1991) in the religious tattoos that adorn De Niro’s (playing a character originated byThe Night of the Hunterantagonist Robert Mitchum) predatory ex-convict; inThe Big Lebowski(Coens, 1998) when The Dude proclaims that “The Dude abides,” a reference toThe Night of the Hunter’s final line “they abide and they endure.”

It’s a film so iconic, so bristling with unforgettable, singular images that it seems referenced even when it’s (probably) not: in the floating head against a night sky of the Princess Irulan inDune(Lynch, 1984); in any scene where geometrical shadows create frames-within-frames; the slow movement of bodies underwater invoking something between life and death or characters being dwarfed against the starry expanse of the night sky.Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ virtuosic set design might not deliberately echo Laughton, but I think ofThe Night of the Hunteranyways in every scene where the walls of a built set are framed by a sea of inky blackness.

The Night of the Hunter’s referenceability is a useful juncture point between its now deserving significance as a cultural text and its sheer quality as a film, both facets owing a great deal to its peerless visual style. It is not a given that a film often referenced is therefore good, or even independently good (Pulp Fiction, for example, is alluded to time and again and yet remains a flat, lousy provocation), but in this case both inspirer and inspiree mutually confer the legitimacy of its merit. The great strength ofThe Night of the Hunteris its ability to translate the “nightmarish Mother Goose story” (as Laughton dubbed it) trappings of its source material into a distinct visual style that unifies its disparate genre roots in noir, children’s film, and Southern Gothic aesthetics by way of a lyrically expressive style inspired by silent classics.

The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (4)

A predator lurks in the shadows in The Night of the Hunter

Laughton approached the film as a veteran actor, theater director, and, yes, filmmaker. Often mistakenly cited as Laughton’s sole directorial effort,The Night of the Hunterwas rather his sole and final solo directorial credit, his first having beenThe Man on the Eiffel Tower(Meredith, 1950), for which he went uncredited. He was sent a copy of the book by the Broadway and eventual Hollywood producer (this would become his first film) Paul Gregory, who was sent it by a literary agent, and, loving it, immediately contacted the author Davis Grubb to plan a film adaptation. Notably, Grubb had been an art student in college and sketched out ideas based on the pair’s discussion, many of which became a part of the film’s storyboard.

Wanting to “restore the power of silent films to the talkies,” Laughton studied silent classics by D.W. Griffith and Rex Ingram (Lilian Gish, who played Rachel Cooper in the film also starred in Griffith’sIntoleranceandThe Birth of a Nation), viewing them on their original nitrate prints and clearly internalizing a very lucid sense for the power of their imagery and the techniques of their making. Noting the expressive, often almost sculptural usage of light and painterly sense of composition that defineThe Night of the Hunter’s images, it’s easy to imagine not only the raw power of silent cinema that Laughton wanted to translate into his own work, but also why audiences at the time were alienated — here was a film that looked and moved like films hadn’t in decades.

The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (5)
The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (6)

Contemporaneous reviews called it “pretentious” (Life) and “a choppily-edited, foggy melodrama peopled with foggy characters” (Harrison’s Reports). Others objected to its portrayal of a serial killing preacher — the film was banned in Memphis, Tennessee, and rated “adults only” in Great Britain. Only years later did critics and audiences alike seeThe Night of the Hunterfor what it was: a stone-cold masterpiece.

Thinking ofThe Night of the Hunterin terms of its visual impact on other filmmakers, there’s a striking echo to be observed between its unseen presence in films by Scorsese, Spielberg, the Coens, even Ari Aster, and the influence of silent cinema on Laughton’s own filmmaking choices. The same is true of any great classic inspired by what came before it and inspiring to what came after, but it feels more plainly obvious here —The Night of the Hunteris, among other things, a conduit between the old and the new; a linkage between the founders of the cinematic language as we know it, and the present as we live it.

The Night of the Hunter screens May 11 at 4pm at IU Cinema as part of Critics’ Pics: Selections from AFI and Sight & Sound.

The Influence and Longevity of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter – Establishing Shot (2024)


What movies were influenced by The Night of the Hunter? ›

The Coen brothers have referenced The Night of the Hunter in several of their own films, including The Big Lebowski ("the Dude abides", an echo of Rachel's closing line "They abide, and they endure") and True Grit (the visual style of Rooster's night ride with Mattie is similar to that of John and Pearl's river journey ...

What is the theme of The Night of the Hunter? ›

It also touches on themes of hypocrisy, religion, sex, greed, and money. "The Night of the Hunter" is told from the point-of-view of “John”, and makes the claim that children are the earth's strongest and most adaptable human beings, though, as “Rachel” says, “It's a hard world for little things”.

How did Night of the Hunter end? ›

At Powell's trial, John is asked to tell whether it was Powell who killed his mother, but he remains silent. The police lead Powell out the back of the courthouse to escape the mob screaming to lynch him. In the final scene, Rachel prepares Christmas dinner for the orphans while they exchange presents.

What is the religion in The Night of the Hunter? ›

Rachel, like Harry, is a Christian, but she teaches her young brood love and acceptance. Both characters refer to the Bible often. Harry's references are often vague, casual mentions of judgement and the sinfulness of women and sex (interestingly, he never once invokes Christ's name directly).

What is the point of Hunter Hunter movie? ›

Synopsis HUNTER HUNTER follows a family living in the remote wilderness earning a living as fur trappers. Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and their daughter Renée (Summer H. Howell) struggle to make ends meet and think their traps are being hunted by the return of a rogue wolf.

What films inspired The Dark Knight? ›

Influenced by films such as The Godfather (1972) and Heat (1995), and maintaining Batman Begins's tone, their finished script bore more resemblance to a crime drama than a traditional superhero film.

What is the meaning of The Night of the Hunter? ›

Harry mesmerizes Willa into a brief life of terrible piety before finally dispatching her. “The Night of the Hunter” expresses the sheer terror that men can hold for women, and women for men.

What is the central theme of Night? ›

Having and Losing Faith in God

One of the main themes of Night is Eliezer's loss of religious faith. Throughout the book, Eliezer witnesses and experiences things that he cannot reconcile with the idea of a just and all-knowing God.

What is the theme of the hunt movie? ›

Jason Blum was a producer under his Blumhouse Productions banner, along with Lindelof. Zobel and Lindelof have said that the film is intended as a satire on the profound political divide between the American left and right. It is about a group of elites who kidnap working class people to hunt them.

Who is the real killer in Night Hunter? ›

It is then revealed that Simon is in fact one of a pair of identical twins, with his twin Nomis being behind the kidnappings and Simon having learning disabilities. The twins kill Cooper and kidnap police profiler Rachel Chase before escaping.

What is the plot of The Night of the Hunter? ›

What happens in the film Night Hunter? ›

A weathered Lieutenant, his police force, and a local vigilante are all caught up in a dangerous scheme involving a troubled, recently-arrested man who's linked to years of female abductions and murders.

How scary is Night of the Hunter? ›

The night of the hunter is still pretty scary, even today. Wonderful direction by Charles Laughton.

Who is the female goddess of hunting? ›

Artemis was the goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon, often depicted with her trusty bow and arrow and a short tunic to aid in running through the woods.

Is Night of the Hunter a fairy tale? ›

A horror movie with qualities of a Grimm fairy tale, it stars a sublimely sinister Robert Mitchum as a traveling preacher named Harry Powell (he of the tattooed knuckles), whose nefarious motives for marrying a fragile widow, played by Shelley Winters, are uncovered by her terrified young children.

What movies did Twilight inspire? ›

Movies based on Twilight or those with the same themes tend to be disliked by critics, but some films surpass expectations and entertain fans nonetheless.
  • Hotel Transylvania. ...
  • Warm Bodies. ...
  • After. ...
  • The Hunger Games. ...
  • Byzantium. ...
  • Divergent. ...
  • Red Riding Hood. ...
  • This Means War.
Aug 10, 2021

What movies inspired the Clock Tower? ›

Was heavily inspired by the films of Italian horror director Dario Argento, especially Phenomena (1985) and Suspiria (1977).

How many movies was Robert Mitchum in? ›

Robert Mitchum (1917–1997) was an American actor who appeared in over 110 films and television series over the course of his career.

What are the list of films mentioned in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched? ›

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
  • The Moonshiner (Short 1904) Clips shown in Part 4: Call Me From the Valley.
  • Häxan (1922) Clips shown in Part 3: We Don't Go Back.
  • The Headless Horseman (1922) Clips shown in Part 4: Call Me From the Valley.
  • Puritan Passions (1923) ...
  • White Zombie (1932)

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