The Night Of The Hunter was Charles Laughton’s first, and only, directorial masterpiece

The Night Of The Hunter was Charles Laughton’s first, and only, directorial masterpiece

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet has us thinking about films by actors turned first-time directors.

The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
After more than two decades as one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars, Charles Laughton decided to turn his hand to directing. “I think I’ll make one of the greatest movies in cinema history, then never make another,” he probably never said to himself… yet that’s precisely what happened. The Night Of The Hunter, in which Laughton does not appear, failed both critically and commercially, ending his career behind the camera before it had even begun. Since he died just seven years later, in 1962, it’s unlikely that the world was thereby deprived of multiple masterpieces, but the loss of even one potential film as magnificent and unprecedented as this one is cause for serious mourning. It’s as if Woody Allen had only made Annie Hall.

Adapted from a then-recent bestseller by Davis Grubb, The Night Of The Hunter stars Robert Mitchum as a murderous “preacher” who arrives in a small town seeking the hidden fortune of a former cellmate, marries and murders the convict’s widow (Shelley Winters), then proceeds to terrorize and ultimately hunt down his two small children, convinced that they know where the loot is. But Laughton shoots this harrowing story in a lush, expressionistic style that somehow melds the forbidding shadows of film noir with the enchanted beauty of a fairy tale. The central sequence in which the children escape in a rowboat, viewed from the perspective of various animals along the riverbank, may be the most eerily beautiful ever filmed—its only serious rival being another scene from this same movie, in which Mitchum and the elderly Lillian Gish, who’s taken the kids in, perform a late-night duet of the traditional hymn “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” as a tender respite from his psychotic stalking and her shotgun-ready vigilance. Laughton was a born filmmaker; that we never got to see what else he might have accomplished is tragic.

Availability: DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.