Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film

Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film

by Jeffrey Couchman

Reaching simultaneously into the realms of film and literature, this detailed exploration of The Night of the Hunter examines the genesis and the eclectic form of each work and the process of transformation by which the novel became a motion picture. It provides the first major study of the long-lost first-draft screenplay by James Agee and confronts a fifty


Reaching simultaneously into the realms of film and literature, this detailed exploration of The Night of the Hunter examines the genesis and the eclectic form of each work and the process of transformation by which the novel became a motion picture. It provides the first major study of the long-lost first-draft screenplay by James Agee and confronts a fifty-year controversy about the authorship of the film. This is a story of artistic convergence on many levels—of novelist and director, director and actor, and cinematic form and tastes. The novel, a 1953 debut from Davis Grubb, was a popular and critical success, remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for four months. Hollywood responded to its atmospheric lyricism, and in the hands of first time director Charles Laughton, the book became a film that is equal parts thriller, allegory, and fever dream, filled with slow, inexorable suspense. On the set, Laughton functioned both as an auteur and a collaborator to create his vision of the book, mixing cinematic flourishes both realistic and abstract in sometimes tense situations. The talents that clashed or came together along the road from book to movie make the final film a product of rich stylistic contradiction and rewarding complexity. Through biography, production history, and critical analysis of the novel and film, author Jeffrey Couchman makes the case that this initially overlooked cinematic gem is a prismatic work that continually reveals new aspects of itself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Couchman is a scholar of refreshing resourcefulness and wisdom. [This book] is a profound contribution to our understanding of an obscure film that has become a classic."—Michael Sragow, Baltimore Sun

"Jeffrey Couchman's study of Charles Laughton's masterpiece is an indispensable and masterly synthesis of everything now known about it. Laughton would surely have been astonished and deeply moved to think that such scholarly care should have been lavished on the film all but dismissed on its first release. A book that anyone interested in the history of cinema should read."—Simon Callow, actor and author of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor and the British Film Institute monograph on The Night of the Hunter

Michael Dirda
In this enthralling "biography," Jeffrey Couchman traces how the cinematic classic came to be made.
—The Washington Post

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Northwestern University Press
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Copyright © 2009

Jeffrey Couchman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2542-1

Chapter One PARTNERS

An Evening with Charles Laughton

One night in March 1949, Paul Gregory sat at the bar of an East Side restaurant called the Chambord, waiting for Dennis Morgan and his wife, who were coming in from Chicago. "I got the call from Dennis that they were snowbound in Buffalo and wouldn't make it," recalled Gregory. "And just at that time, I looked up on the television screen over the bar, and there was Laughton on the Ed Sullivan show."

Charles Laughton was reading chapter 3 from the book of Daniel, the tale of the burning fiery furnace and Nebuchadnezzar's sudden conversion. As Time magazine described the scene a few years later, Gregory "stared entranced at the bar's TV set as Laughton dramatized his readings by balletlike turnings of his heavy body, ducking his dewlapped chin into his collar, shooting sly glances from his spaniel-sad eyes." The spectacle remained vivid in Gregory's mind some thirty years later: "I noted that nobody spoke while Laughton was speaking-even the bartender looked respectful."

For Gregory, the moment was an epiphany. "I thought, 'My goodness, I can take him and send him all over the country, doing his readings.'" He raced across town to West Thirty-ninth Street and waited for Laughton to emerge from the stage door of the Maxine Elliott Theater, from which Toast of the Town was broadcasting. (The name of the program would change to The Ed Sullivan Show on September 25, 1955, and on that landmark telecast, Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, and Peter Graves would play scenes from The Night of the Hunter.) "I approached him," Gregory recalled, "and he said, 'Talk to my agent.' And I said, you've just thrown away a million dollars, Mr. Laughton," a statement that brought the actor up short. "There isn't an agent in the world who would understand what the hell I'm talking about. And he said, 'Well, let's have a drink, old boy.' So we went to the Algonquin Hotel bar, ... and we talked, and about four in the morning I left with a contract on Algonquin stationery to represent him to do [the readings]." Laughton's widow, Elsa Lanchester, tells a story similar to Gregory's, though she ends it more sedately: "Paul and Charles met, and they went to a quiet bar to talk." In her account, Laughton was "enchanted with the idea" for the readings and called her up "at once," full of excitement. (For the record, other versions of the encounter say that Gregory contacted Laughton the day after the Sullivan performance. One hopes that these more prosaic reports are untrue.)

The result of Gregory's impetuous trip across Manhattan was a compelling show that starred Laughton, a lectern, and a pile of books. Callow offers a vivid description:

It started with him shambling onto the platform in an overcoat from which, balefully eyeing the audience, he would remove books, one by one, making a pile out of them. Then the overcoat would come off to reveal him attired much as he would be in the street, i.e., shabbily. He'd chuckle: "Here we are again-an actor and an audience ...," and he'd be off, with the first reading, after which, "I'll tell you a story," he'd suddenly say, and it might be a four-line gag about a little boy he spoke to in Athens, Ohio, or it might be an anecdote about Henry Moore.

The books were merely for show-some were hollowed-out props-because Laughton had his texts memorized. Indeed, Gregory called Laughton's performance one of "rehearsed spontaneity," a phrase that nicely describes Laughton's method of directing The Night of the Hunter. From night to night, depending on the mood of the audience, Laughton would change the order of his program, though he always maintained a balance between lighter works-short poems or a piece by James Thurber, for instance-and weightier passages from, say, the Bible or Shakespeare.

Without knowing it, Laughton for years had been preparing himself for the show eventually called An Evening with Charles Laughton. He had offered readings in his films (the Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap [1935], the Bible in Rembrandt [1939]), to hospitalized soldiers during World War II, and in 1944 he released a record on which he read from the Christmas chapter in The Pickwick Papers. Despite that groundwork, it took someone of Paul Gregory's imagination to conceive a one-man show. Indeed, during his five-year association with Laughton, Gregory exhibited remarkable acumen in recognizing projects that allowed for the creative expression his partner craved.

Paul Gregory Presents

"Beyond acting," Elsa Lanchester observes, "Charles' chief talent, I think, was construction. You might call it editing. He was never a creative playwright, but he was a master cutter. He would have liked to have been a writer, because in fact he really knew how to build a dramatic house." Laughton had already gained experience in dramatic construction from his adaptation of Galileo, but the productions with Gregory-Don Juan in Hell, John Brown's Body, and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial-prepared him more thoroughly for his most challenging editorial job: working on James Agee's long first draft for The Night of the Hunter.

The text of Don Juan, from the third act of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, is a discourse on reason and sensuality, marriage and womanhood, and as many other topics as Shaw could cram into a single, extended scene. Although Shaw had asked that his entire text be used without any cuts, Laughton found it necessary to eliminate lines here and there, chiefly in the interest of pacing and time, though a few bits dismissive of religion seem to have been cut to avoid offense (an ironic self-censorship in light of the way Laughton and Gregory offended church organizations with The Night of the Hunter). Laughton edited the scene lightly and maintained the progression of Shaw's philosophical argument.

To adapt John Brown's Body for three performers and an onstage chorus, Laughton had to edit more extensively, and he did the job with a sure poetic touch. In a foreword to a 1941 edition of the poem, Benét says that "three meters do most of the work: blank verse ...; the light, swift meter ...; and the longer, rougher line." In the 1953 recording of the Gregory-Laughton show, one discovers that Laughton maintains the balance of those meters in the way he distributes lines among individual performers and the chorus. Even in compressed form, Laughton captures both the sweep of history and the details of human life within Benét's epic scheme. (Laughton had performed in a version of the poem on radio for Norman Corwin's CBS program The Pursuit of Happiness [1939-40]. Lanchester, who costarred with her husband, describes the program as "using music, chorus, and sound effects"-a precursor, then, to the 1953 production. Although that program seems to be lost, it sounds similar to a Corwin production on The Columbia Workshop [1939]. Corwin's own skillful condensation of the poem is a model for Laughton's later version.)

For his first two shows, Laughton was able to adapt the scripts at his own pace in his own way. The script for The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial had to be shaped in collaboration with its author, Herman Wouk, while the show was in its pre-Broadway tryout. Laughton had not initially been involved in the play. He came in when the original director, Dick Powell, was fired. The first order of business for Laughton was to create a workable script. Wouk's first draft ran to four hours. Over one weekend, Laughton cut out more than an hour. In a New York Times piece published the week before the play's successful Broadway opening, Wouk recalls his reaction: "When Laughton gave me back my script, ... I felt like saying, 'Look you fat sonofabitch, you can't do that to me.' But actually I know his editing was the thing. He took the script and made it into a play." The published script bears the following testament to Laughton's work:

This play is dedicated to Charles Laughton in admiration and gratitude.

Laughton recalls that in Boston he was having trouble articulating to Wouk what was needed to make the script hold together. He took the playwright to the Boston Art Museum, and together they studied a Japanese screen composed of gray monkeys and black birds descending in an arc that, to Laughton, sealed "the pattern of the picture." In reference to Caine Mutiny, Laughton said to Wouk:

"The birds are missing." I looked at Herman. He was blushing.

"Damn you, Charles, damn you," he said and he burst out laughing. The screen had said what I had been unable to say.

The following day we had a script with the necessary emphases beautifully written.

Laughton's indirect method of conveying ideas would become familiar to the crew on The Night of the Hunter. At production meetings, he would read from Davis Grubb or Dickens or the Bible to help convey what he was after on screen. The preceding story is significant, too, for the way it illustrates Laughton's visual acuity. He naturally thought in terms of images, even when constructing the script for a play. Laughton's imagination seems ready to be set loose in the world of film, where a story can be told in pictures. In his description and analysis of the Japanese screen, one sees the director who, with Stanley Cortez at his side, would compose the beautifully balanced shots that are a hallmark of The Night of the Hunter.

One also sees an anticipation of the film in the minimalism of the Gregory-Laughton stage productions. "When I was in school and interested in play producing," Gregory explains in a profile for the Los Angeles Times, "I had the habit of undressing a production, that is, trying to estimate what a play was like in its essentials, without extraneous decor." Don Juan in Hell and John Brown's Body are extensions of Laughton's readings. In Don Juan, instead of one man at a podium "reading" from texts he had memorized, there were four actors (Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, Agnes Moorehead, and Laughton) in evening dress on stools-"those damnable stools," as Hardwicke remembered them-"reading" from scripts they knew by heart. If Gregory turned to John Brown's Body because he "wanted to follow Don Juan in Hell with something panoramic," the show nevertheless used a bare setting-part of a balustrade, a red bench-and only a trio of actors in evening dress (Raymond Massey, Judith Anderson, and Tyrone Power) to play dozens of parts alongside a chorus of twenty men and women. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which featured Henry Fonda, Lloyd Nolan, and John Hodiak, was also presented in a spare style. The courtroom was suggested by a judge's bench, a round witness stand, and a long table for the prosecution so that viewers could concentrate on the words and ideas of the drama. In the Times profile, Gregory says, "One cannot be this restrained in the treatment of decor for films. Reality is demanded." Yet on The Night of the Hunter, Laughton crafted scenes that drew on the design principle of the stage shows he had done with Gregory. For the revival meeting, the shooting script reads, "No set necessary for this scene. Flare or flares, in every shot. Faces lighted by flares." On film, the scene is indeed stripped to essentials-flares and faces against a backdrop that suggests a tent. Later, at Preacher's trial, we never see the full courtroom. John sits in a witness chair, while we hear the prosecutor's offscreen voice and see his arm reach into frame. Even in some shots that contain more realistic decor, the image has a spare, presentational quality, such as Preacher's dark form beside the gas lamp in Willa's yard or Preacher crossing the horizon in the moonlight on a horse.

The musical aspects of Don Juan in Hell and, especially, John Brown's Body form another connection to The Night of the Hunter, where music plays a vital role in the film's overall effect. While the stage adaptation of John Brown was still being prepared, Gregory brought in the composer Walter Schumann, well known at the time for records of popular songs with his choral group, the Voices of Walter Schumann, to develop a score for the show. In the LP recording of John Brown's Body, one can hear lyrical melodies, sung a cappella, that look ahead to the lullabies in The Night of the Hunter. In both works, the overused word haunting is an apt term for Schumann's ethereal themes. For John Brown, Schumann created musical bridges between dialogue-a waltz, for example, or a Yankee melody-that allowed Laughton to condense Benét's poem and make swift transitions from scene to scene. When Schumann signed on to write the score for The Night of the Hunter, he once again composed music even before production began. Laughton and Schumann's close working relationship on the film was a happy extension of their stage work.

Alongside Schumann's melodies, music in a figurative sense adds dimension to Laughton's theatrical presentations and film. The director chose not to use the Mozart theme that Shaw wrote into Don Juan, but the musical nature of the show is conveyed by the name that Gregory gave the ensemble of actors, who sat onstage with music stands in front of them: the First Drama Quartette. In liner notes for the 1952 recording, Jacques Barzun calls Don Juan in Hell a "fugue for four voices." Kurt Singer grasps the show's inherent musicality when he describes Laughton's direction: "He was like a Toscanini conducting his orchestra." Writing about Laughton's direction of John Brown's Body, in which the actors pass dialogue and narration back and forth, Raymond Massey also turns to musical imagery: "He conducted us like a maestro, bringing the performance to dramatic climaxes and modulating us to the moments of horror, pity and doom." The sound of each actor for the stage played a significant role in the casting. "I always first cast with my eyes closed," Gregory once said. "I think that if you can't hear the sounds of a given piece, you shouldn't try to produce it." Laughton evidently felt the same way, because the resonance of the actors in Don Juan in Hell and John Brown's Body looks ahead to The Night of the Hunter, where the voices are carefully balanced against one another: Mitchum's booming baritone as he delivers his "Right-Hand-Left-Hand" sermon; Evelyn Varden's sickly sweet drawl, "And you don't get a smidgen of my fudge unless you stay for the pick-nick"; and Lillian Gish's mellifluous lilt as she recalls "them olden days, them hard, hard times."

The importance of a musical quality in the actors' delivery is made clear in the typescript of The Night of the Hunter's final screenplay. After Willa's murder, we see the faces of John and Pearl at a basement window while Preacher playfully calls for them. On page 74 of the typescript, his line is written out in musical notation not found in the first draft and not suggested by any description in the novel:

Example 1.1 Preacher's call to John and Pearl, typescript of final screenplay for The Night of the Hunter, 1954.

In the film, Mitchum approximates the specified octave jump. A later scene on page 89 of the typescript-a scene photographed but cut from the film-uses the same notation for the same offscreen words when Preacher is locked behind the basement door and speaks with false sweetness to the children. It is unfortunate that the musical notes are not reproduced in the version of the shooting script published in Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts (1960) and republished in 2005 as part of the Library of America's James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism. They are essential to Laughton's conception of the film.

John Brown's Body demonstrates that even before making The Night of the Hunter, in which nonrealistic sounds heighten the drama, Laughton was fascinated with stylized sound and used it in imaginative ways. The onstage chorus chants as though in a Greek drama ("Horses of anger trampling, horses of anger / Trampling behind the sky in ominous cadence") or creates crowd noises and sound effects (drums, marching feet, a faraway bugle). The voices of John Brown's lead performers frequently blend with the chorus. Judith Anderson, for instance, draws out the word wind to mingle with a wind sound being created by the group. (Continues...)

Excerpted from THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER by JEFFREY COUCHMAN Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey Couchman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jeffrey Couchman is a post-doctoral teaching fellow at Fordham University in New York City, where he also resides. His criticism, including works on Double Indemnity and The Night of the Hunter, has appeared in American Cinematographer, and his fiction has appeared in Pennsylvania English and the South Carolina Review.

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