Hot on the trail of ‘Hunter’

Times Staff Writer

There have been many myths and rumors that have sprung up around the making of Charles Laughton’s haunting 1955 film, “The Night of the Hunter,” especially that he hated directing children and let star Robert Mitchum take over the reins when it came time to lead youngsters Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce in their scenes.

Thankfully, Laughton, who died in 1962, left behind an eight-hour legacy of rushes, outtakes and deleted scenes he kept from the production of the landmark thriller that belies some of those myths.

“The rushes show that this is a much too simplified view of things,” says UCLA Film & Television Archive preservation officer Robert Gitt.


Along with preservationist Nancy Mysel, Gitt spent 20 years restoring this rare footage that was donated by Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, to the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., while Gitt was working there. Eventually, Gitt and the footage moved to the UCLA archive.

“Laughton is very patient with little Sally Jane Bruce, who is only 5 years old, and he works extremely well with Billy Chapin and coaxes a magnificent performance out of them,” says Gitt. “There are a couple of scenes where Robert Mitchum does work with the children, but Laughton was there with them.”

Gitt premiered “Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’: A Presentation of Outtakes From the Film” during the 2002 UCLA film preservation festival. The two-hour program, which is being shown Saturday night at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater, is culled from this material.

Laughton, who made his feature directorial debut with “Hunter,” had a unique way of working. “Laughton liked to keep the camera running,” says Gitt. “Instead of stopping between takes, he would talk to the actors. You hear him coaching them and perfecting their performance. He gets to play every character in the movie himself at one time or another in the rushes that we show. I think if he had been able to wear costumes and makeup, I think he would have enjoyed playing all the parts.”

Featuring the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography of the great Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons”) -- Laughton and Cortez watched numerous silent German Expressionist classics prior to production -- “Night of the Hunter” is avant-garde in its look and storytelling.

Set in West Virginia in the late 1930s, the drama revolves around Harry Powell (Mitchum, as a self-appointed preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles). Powell had shared a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), sentenced to hang for a robbery that involved the killing of two men. Harper had hidden the money on his farm and told only his two young children of the location.


Upon his release from prison, Powell arrives at Harper’s farm, where he woos and marries his widow (Shelley Winters) and questions the children about the money.

And it was a box office disaster.

“United Artists didn’t know what to do with it,” says Gitt. “Within a short period of time, it closed and lost all of its money. Laughton and [producing partner] Paul Gregory were supposed to make a film of ‘The Naked and the Dead.’ However, financing fell through. He was pushed out of the project.”

The failure broke Laughton’s heart. “He was depressed for several months afterward,” says Gitt. “It wasn’t until Billy Wilder talked him into doing ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ that he became involved in [acting] in films again.”



‘Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” ’

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Price: $7 to $9

Contact: or (310) 206-8013

Running time: Two hours