Unlikely partners in creation of a movie classic

Actor Charles Laughton and his actress wife, Elsa Lanchester and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, below.
Actor Charles Laughton and his actress wife, Elsa Lanchester and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, below.
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Charles Laughton directed only one film The Night of the Hunter – but what a film it was. Tony Earnshaw reveals the story behind it.

The pairing of Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum made for an unlikely meeting of minds.

“I want you to play a diabolical s***,” the Yorkshireman told the laconic star. “Present,” he replied.

The year was 1954. Laughton and his producer Paul Gregory had acquired the rights to a strange, hypnotic novel by Davis Grubb about a wandering religious fanatic. Laughton was gearing up to take the director’s seat for the first time. Film critic James Agee would pen the script.

But the critical element was the star: who would step up to play Harry Powell, the unhinged multiple killer who wielded a Bible even as he dispatched his victims? Step forward Robert Mitchum.

The 38-year-old’s involvement secured studio backing. Yet even then United Artists put only the meagre sum of $700,000 into the film. Partly they were concerned about Laughton, a tremendous presence on stage but who had never before helmed a movie.

And when Agee delivered a hefty 300-page script it was left to Laughton to steer the project towards its conclusion.

In doing so he created an indelible screen classic and gave Mitchum arguably the best role of his 54-year career.

So many stories surround the making of The Night of the Hunter. Reportedly Mitchum did not agree with the casting of Shelley Winters as Willa Harper, the widow of a robber who stole $10,000 and told his kids where it was stashed.

“Shelley got what she deserved, lying there dead at the bottom of the river,” said Mitchum of Winters’ legendary death scene.

What’s more Laughton found himself unable to deal with Sally Jane Bruce and Billy Chapin, playing Winters’ children Pearl and John, so Mitchum stepped forward to direct their scenes.

One day Mitchum passed Chapin a note asking whether his character was frightened of the Preacher. Chapin said he wasn’t. “Then you don’t know the Preacher and you don’t know John,” replied Mitchum. “Oh really? That’s probably why I just won the New York Critics’ Circle prize,” quipped the boy. Mitchum liked that. Laughton most definitely did not.

Laughton seemed to have been more in tune with Lillian Gish, the star of DW Griffiths’ silent epics, hired to play the film’s spirit of absolution, well-scrubbed and radiant. She recalled that Laughton watched Griffiths’ films and that Mitchum was a darling.

Ah, Mitchum. If ever two men were so unalike it was Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum. One was an hotelier’s son from Scarborough, the other was an anti-authoritarian drop-out. One had made his reputation in the theatre and in British films before enjoying a Hollywood career. The other had played soldiers, cowboys, gumshoes, bruisers and sundry loners and drifters in trademark nonchalant fashion. Yet it is easy to write off Mitchum as some sort of swaggering, drunken buffoon.

Similarly Laughton has been cast as a pudgy outsider, secretly homosexual, unhappily married to Elsa Lanchester but forever chasing young men. “All this tough talk is a blind, you know,” said Laughton of Mitchum in an interview with Esquire magazine. “He’s a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully – when he wants to.”

The tender, shy gentleman that Laughton referred to was in sharp contrast to the boozer, the brawler, the cannabis smoker, who enjoyed shocking people with the brutality of his candour.

Perhaps the key to the success of this extraordinary combination was the sense of visual style that Laughton brought to the picture. As well as Gish with her past grace and girlishness – “delicate but indestructible” wrote Laughton’s biographer Simon Callow – there was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, nicknamed The Baron, a famously technical innovator who brought moody light and shadow to the mad preacher’s adventures in death.

The Night of the Hunter was not a winner at the box office. Complex, layered and with troubling themes of sexual freedom and making physical the essence of pure evil, it was a commercial flop.

Laughton was shattered by the experience of The Night of the Hunter. Not by its making, but by its failure.

Maybe it was too original, too ahead of its time. Later Gregory bought the rights to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead for Laughton to direct but he never again went behind the camera. Thus the psychopathic preacher represents the pinnacle of Laughton’s alternative career, and of Mitchum’s.

Neither man would enjoy such peculiar opportunities again.

Talented actor on stage and screen

Born in Scarborough in 1899, Charles Laughton trained as an actor at RADA.

For the Old Vic in the 1930s he played Macbeth, Henry VIII, Angelo and Prospero.

Following his New York theatre debut in 1931 he broke into Hollywood and films such as The Old Dark House. Early successes included Nero in The Sign of the Cross and Dr Moreau in Island of Lost Souls. Later he would play Captain Bligh, another of his famous grotesques, in Mutiny on the Bounty. He was nominated three times for the Academy Award as Best Actor, winning in 1934 for The Private Life of Henry VIII.