Laughton v. Kubrick

The Night of the Hunter (1955) vs. The Shining (1980)

Brief Description: Just recently I finally got around to watching Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter", with Robert Mitchum. As it happened I had also re-watched Kubrick's "The Shining" only a week before. Almost immediately after The Night of the Hunter began I started to notice similarities between the opening scenes of both films.

By the end of Charles Laughton's superb and unsettling work I was certain that there were quite a few conceptual connections between the two, seemingly very different, films.

This post is divided into four parts, mirroring the sequence of common elements that I have noticed:

Several scenes in these two films share similarities in composition. The most closely aligned are the opening shots.

1. The Shining: Kubrick opens with a series of aerial shots: A yellow VW Beatle speeds through wooded landscape along a 2-lane country road as the helicopter mounted camera swoops in from behind and above, passing very close to the little yellow car. This car, it turns out, is carrying Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) to the Overlook Hotel for a job interview.

2. The Night of the Hunter: In an almost identical sequence, although flipped from right-to-left, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is first shown from a distance in an open-top car driving along a country road beside a large body of water (presumably the Ohio river) as the camera approaches and passes him.


Note especially in the right hand image from The Night Of The Hunter the peaks and troughs formed on the horizon by the houses and trees. Compare these with the massive sloping forms of the mountains in The Shining. The footage of the mountains was shot by Kubrick's second unit (he himself was afraid to fly) but the similarity in composition and sense of depth, accentuated by the curving flight of both airborne cameras, 25 years apart, is striking.

3. The Night of the Hunter: When the children initially escape Rev. Powell they lock him into the basement of their house. Laughton shows us the locked door, with Mitchum shouting a jovially insincere command as he starts breaking the door down.

Similarly, towards the end of The Shining, Shelly Duvall and Danny Lloyd escape from Jack Nicholson by fleeing to their bathroom. Nicholson recites the rhyme about Three Little Pigs as he starts to smash the door in with an axe.


In both plot lines, a 'Dark Man' (to paraphrase Stephen King) approaches a place of killing.

1. Jack Torrance isn't necessarily a bad man - maybe he simply has a short temper. Harry Powell certainly is evil, a psychopathic murderer, thief and liar. Yet every man carries inside him a capacity for violence (e.g., the basic premise of 'Straw Dogs'), so in a sense all men are dark men. This is a common enough trope but still, it is another connection between these two films.

2. Both Jack Torrance and Harry Powell each attempt to kill two children. My reasoning here is that in The Shining, Jack's wife Wendy (Shelly Duval) is partially childish in her demeanor - witness when she disturbs Jack one time too many and he flips at her. Her initial approach and reaction are both simplistic, submissive. She is not mentally deficient, but she certainly is limited in her capacity to imagine what Jack was becoming. From the first time we see her we know that 1) she is a caring, loving mother, and 2) she's not necessarily the sharpest tool in the shed. She is innocent and naive, just as a young child is. Is this a stretch? Possibly.

In the end Torrance and Powell are defeated, outwitted by their young prey and descend to their deaths: Jack freezes to death and Powell is captured, convicted of murder and hung. It is the children who win, who defeat the Monster. The adults are accomplices, weak or victims.


There appear to be similarities in mood and intention in critical pieces of music chosen for either film.

1. The Shining opening music is 'Rocky Mountains' by Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind-Tourre. A deep, reverberant interpretation of Berlioz's Sympnhonie Fantastique, it is methodical and relentless and suits the remote mountainous setting perfectly.

2. The Night of the Hunter has a montage of shots hinting at the arrival of Reverend Powell. Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is nagged by her mother to find another man after the execution of her husband, Ben Harper. Intercut with this running conversation are brief, harsh shots of a darkly charging train, wrapped in steam and smoke. A heavy, menacing score crashes out with each shot of the train.

To me, there seems to be a tonal connection between the two cuts- both are foreboding, both hint at an approaching darkness, and the music used (though clearly different tunes) are similar in mood and pacing.


1. Stephen King has said that The Night of the Hunter scared him silly when he was a kid. He lists Harry Powell as one of his top 10 Evil-doers in film.
2. James Agee co-wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Night of the Hunter.
3. James Agee was also a respected critic and reviewed Kubrick's early film, Fear and Desire. Agee and Kubrick were friends; Kubrick would regularly have dinner at the Agee house. Agee told Kubrick that Fear and Desire was very good for what it was - a first film. They remained friends until Agee's death of  a heart attack in 1955.

All art is derivative. No one creates in a vacuum. We are influenced by our personal histories; what we've read, seen, heard, felt and touched. We carry the images of great paintings quietly in our minds - I say "Monet" and you instantly think waterlillies.

New, original art occurs when an artist (in whatever medium) reaches back into their memories, pulls also from their surroundings, emotions and experiences and distills everything down through a set of filters unique to them, picking out things that matter, things that resonant with their particular mindset and then - gets to work. Art is work, it's bloody, relentless hard work.

Kubrick was intensely creative and imaginative. Nothing of what I have noted above is to suggest that he was derivative, or 'copied' elements form The Night of the Hunter. I posit instead that Kubrick did reference elements and concepts from it, almost pay homage to it (and possibly to his deceased friend, James Agee). There are definite connotations, identifiable influences and sources of shots, compositions, sound effects and story elements.

All artists refer to something and build on that. For Bacon, it was Velaquez's painting of the Machiavellian Pope, Innocent X. And just look at what Bacon did with that single image:


Kubrick created films, he was an artist, and he certainly did not create within a vacuum - except maybe for a little flick he threw together in 1968...

Note: I do not know if what I've describing in this article is very original. I have no formal training or experience in Film or TV, or even writing. It may be that the points I made are blatantly obvious, freshman grade stuff. Hopefully not.]]>