According to Robert Mitchum's autobiography, Mitchum himself was openly contemptuous of Shelley Winters throughout the shooting of the film, and later claimed to have wished Charles Laughton had actually used Winters in the scene when her character's body is seen dead underwater.
Robert Mitchum was very eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit." Mitchum promptly answered, "Present!"
Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer on "Night of the Hunter", had also worked on Orson Welles's masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He remarked some years after the making of this film that only two directors he'd worked with had understood light, "that incredible thing that can't be described": Welles and Laughton.
Reports that screenwriter James Agee wrote an incoherent screenplay have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first draft. That document, although 293 pages in length, and manifestly overwritten (as is common with first drafts), is, scene-for-scene, the film that Charles Laughton directed. Likewise false are the reports that Agee was fired, related most infamously in Robert Mitchum's autobiography. Laughton, however much he gnashed his teeth at having such a behemoth of a text in his hands with only five weeks to go before the start of principal photography, calmly renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it in half; after much persuasion, he did. In Laughton's stage work ("Galileo", "Cain Mutiny Court Martial", etc), the great actor demonstrated he was a script editor of genius - he could induce the most stubborn and prideful writer to cut, cut, cut, and so he did in Agee's case. Later, apparently at Robert Mitchum's request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and Laughton. Letters and documents located in the archive of Agee's agent Paul Kohner bear this out -- they were brought to light by Laughton biographer Simon Callow, whose excellent BFI book about "Night of the Hunter" diligently sets this part of the record straight. The Agee first draft may eventually be published, but it has been read by scholars -- most notably, Professor Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due". To assert Agee's moral right to his screen credit in no way disputes Laughton's greatness as a director -- clearly, he was as expert with writers as he was with actors -- but Agee has been belittled, and even slandered, over the years (especially in Robert Mitchum's autobiography), when his contribution to "Night of the Hunter" was of primary and enduring importance. (Submitted by F. X. Feeney, film critic and author, who has read the original Agee script.)
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; in one of them, Charles Laughton is said to have had no great love for children, and so despised directing them in this film that Robert Mitchum found himself directing the children in several scenes. In reality, Laughton obsessed over every facet of his first feature, including getting the performances of every actor (even the children) right; this would lead to him dismissing one actor, in particular, after all of his scenes had already been shot and starting again with another in the part.
Laughton reportedly worked well with the boy playing John, but did not get along with the girl playing Pearl and shouted at her on occasion. As Laughton had the camera continue to roll after the scenes were finished, the camera often caught her reacting to him. Some of these "out-takes" were used in the final editing process as reaction shots to the Preacher's character.
While the poor critical reviews are often cited as the reason Laughton never directed another feature, Laughton himself said that he much preferred directing in the theatre. In the theatre you could constantly change and amend the production - adding lines, changing lighting and sets - but with film once it was done it could never be changed.
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; one, for example, concerns director Charles Laughton, and how he supposedly found the script by James Agee totally unacceptable, rewriting it himself. This has been disproved by the discovery of Agee's 293-page first draft, back in 2004, which is, scene-for-scene, the film that Laughton directed.
Later on in life, Robert Mitchum, who was usually indifferent to such matters, said that Charles Laughton was his favorite director and indicated that this was his favorite of the movies in which he had acted.
The studio tank at Republic studios, where John Wayne shot Wake of the Red Witch (1948), was where the dummy of 'Shelley Winters (I)' in the underwater sequence was shot. The eerie shots were filmed by an underwater cameraman in a scuba outfit and a camera that had to be held by him on a hook. Initially the tank at Fox was used but the paint inside the tank was flaking, and the water was not clear.
The scene where the children get away in the rowboat leaving the frustrated, knife-wielding preacher chest deep in the water was actually filmed on a sound stage. Robert Mitchum as the preacher was actually crouched down in the scene as the water level was a fairly shallow.
Producer Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton presented key members of the crew, like cinematographer Stanley Cortez, each with a one percent interest in the film. This given to them on top of their salaries and is something that is never done. Gregory and Laughton said it was not done to encourage the artists, but reward them for their artistry. This was done over the objections of United Artists.
Kitty White was an acquaintance of Night of the Hunter novelist Davis Grubb. Director Laughton was looking for a vocalist to sing composer Walter Schumann's lullaby and Grubb suggested to Laughton that he go hear White sing in a nightclub. He did and White was chosen to sing the haunting lullaby,
So disappointed was he by the poor reception of this film on its initial release both critically and commercially, Charles Laughton vowed never to direct a film again, and he never did. The film he was planning to direct next was going to be a screen adaptation of "The Naked and the Dead."
The underwater shot of Shelley Winters' corpse in the Ford was the last one filmed. It was so convincing to actor Don Beddoe when he saw the finished film that he thought it was Winters holding her breath, not a dummy.