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The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Screenplay: James Agree (based on the novel by Davis Grubb)
Stars: Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon), Peter Graves (Ben Harper), Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper), Gloria Castillo (Ruby)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: U.S.
The Night of the Hunter Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Night of the Hunter Like most films that experiment with conventions, push boundaries, and muddy otherwise comfortable demarcations of tone, style, and genre, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter was not particularly well received when it was first released in 1955. Neither audiences nor critics (nor United Artists, the studio that produced and released it) had any real idea what it was. Critics were generally kind to it, possibly because they recognized how boldly the film incorporated so many different cinematic styles, although hardly in a way that would suggest its later classic status. Audiences, on the other hand, mostly stayed away, which by all accounts broke Laughton’s heart. A much heralded British actor with a resume dating back three decades, Laughton had shifted his attention in the 1950s to directing stage productions, although The Night of the Hunter is the only film he directed, a real shame given that it evinces so much potential.

Based on the novel by Davis Grubb and adapted for the screen by writer and film critic James Agree (who had previously adapted The African Queen for John Huston), The Night of the Hunter is an archetypal thriller that bounces relentlessly between hard-edged realism and exaggerated lyricism, giving the impression of a stylized nightmare. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who shot Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons) eschew a consistent, defining style in favor of a grab-bag approach in which they borrow looks and tones from previous eras and genres to suit whatever scene is before the camera lens. Thus, there are scenes that evoke the patent unreality of German expressionism, scenes that recall the lush pastoral qualities of D.W. Griffith’s silent films, images that are positively surreal, and moments of slapstick humor that seem almost perversely designed to undermine the film’s more frightening moments. As a whole it doesn’t entirely work because its purposeful inconsistency highlights experimentalism at the cost of emotional and tonal coherence, but there are moments that are so brilliantly realized that you can’t help but admire the effort.

In its broadest sense, the film’s Depression-era narrative would be best described as a fairy tale (Laughton described it as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”), which provides a ready-made framework within which the film can emphasis the clear divides between good and evil from a child’s point of view. The primary characters are two children: 10-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and his 5-year-old sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Near the beginning of the film John and Pearl’s father (Peter Graves) desperately and foolishly robs a bank, leaving them with knowledge of the whereabouts of the $10,000 he stole before he is hauled off to jail and eventually executed. Their mother Willa (Shelley Winters), a simple woman who is easily swayed, is then sought out by Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a cunning psychopath who uses the disguise of an itinerate preacher to roam the countryside for moneyed widows to murder. We have already been made aware of how his murderous tendencies are enflamed by sexual arousal, which is cleverly depicted in a sequence in a burlesque hall where Powell’s phallic switchblade cuts through his coat pocket during a dance, a perverse symbolic stand-in for his explosive conflation of sex and violence. The Freudian overtones are so overt as to be almost comical, but Mitchum plays the role with a stark severity that establishes him as the prototype for all future screen psychos. The scene in which he uses his hands, one tattooed with L-O-V-E on the knuckles and one tattooed with H-A-T-E, to demonstrated the universal battle between good and evil is a clever demonstration of how he can twist his perverse worldview to trick those who only see the cloth he wears.

The second half of the film is an extended chase sequence in which John and Pearl escape from Powell and take off in a boat down the river, with the preacher in constant pursuit. They eventually find his opposite (an important element in any fairy tale), in this case Rachel Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish), a kindly, God-fearing woman who also proves that she can wield a shotgun if necessary when protecting the children. Laughton had already established her presence as a kind of guardian angel in the film’s opening moments, where we see her cast against a night sky reading from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and emphasizing the dire warning against “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The conflation of Biblical scripture and fairy tale imagery is powerful, giving Mitchum’s preacher an almost supernatural force of existence, which is emphasized later in the film via his omnipresent shadow and his seemingly unstoppable pursuit of the children (“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” John asks himself at one point when he thinks they have gotten away from him and then sees him riding slowly across the horizon on a horse).

Despite its tepid initial reception in the mid-1950s, The Night of the Hunter has gone on to become a bona-fide classic, embraced with equal enthusiasm by classical film buffs, horror fans, and cult film aficionados. The extensive adoration it now enjoys from corners that are not usually in agreement is ironically related to precisely those qualities that kept it from acceptance half a century ago, namely its wide range of tones and approaches that never quite gel, but still produces some of the most memorably imagery in Hollywood cinema. The children’s nighttime sojourn down the river, which is depicted with an oneiric sense of subjectivity via expressionist lighting, minimal sets, and distorted photography, has deservedly become a classic in its own right. The scene in which Powell berates Willa her sexuality within an A-frame bedroom that looks like a church also sticks in one’s mind, as does the nightmarish image of a corpse tied to a car at the bottom of a lake, her floating hair intermingling with underwater plants in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. The mixture of such imagery and tones is fundamental to The Night of the Hunter’s overall effect, which stands apart from most Hollywood cinema of its era and looks forward to a more daring film renaissance to come, one that Laughton sadly never lived to see.

The Night of the Hunter Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Night of the Hunter is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP $29.95).
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones
  • Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter documentary
  • “The Making of The Night of the Hunter” documentary
  • Video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow
  • Clip from The Ed Sullivan Show
  • Episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film
  • Archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez
  • Gallery of sketches by author Davis Grubb
  • New video conversation between Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin about Charles Laughton Directs
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateNovember 16, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Fans of The Night of the Hunter have been eagerly awaiting a proper presentation of the film on home video, since the previous MGM DVD was incorrectly transferred in a 1.33:1 open-matte aspect ratio (to be fair, so was Criterion’s laser disc from the late 1980s). Criterion has corrected that error, presenting it in the intended 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a luminous new 2K high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. The film is absolutely gorgeous, betraying no signs of age, damage, or wear while maintaining a pleasing sense of film grain that feels entirely natural. The new transfer benefits the most in terms of black levels, which are crucial for the film’s effectiveness and are here presented with an inky darkness and stark contrast that is breath-taking. We couldn’t ask for the film to look better outside of an archival 35mm print. The monaural soundtrack was transferred from the 2001 UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, which reconstructed the track from several different sources, including a 35mm composite master positive, a variable-density soundtrack negative of the film’s music and effects tracks, a projection print, and rolls of 35mm magnetic film of edited dialogue recordings. The 24-bit transfer on the Blu-Ray gives us an excellent lossless PCM track that is clear, sharp, and free of any ambient hiss or aural distortions.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Let’s start at the top with the supplements: The entire second disc of this two-disc set is given over to Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, a 160-minute documentary that was assembled over a 25-year period by film archivist Robert Gitt from nearly eight hours of outtakes, a remarkable feat from an era in which such material was usually thrown away. Gitt (who appears in a 17-minute interview with film critic Leonard Maltin that plays as an introduction to the film) organized the outtakes to follow the flow of the film itself, inserting background information about the major players to give it additional context. The real treasure of this documentary, though, is the way it offers such rare insight into the filmmaking process, allowing us to hear Laughton’s voice as he directs his actors and showing us the various takes and camera angles that for one reason or another weren’t used. It provides amazing insight into the production process and also helps dispel some rumors, such as the idea that Laughton hated working with the child actors. Originally completed in 2002 and first screened at UCLA’s Festival of Preservation that year, this is the documentary’s video debut (in high definition, no less!) and is essential viewing for all film scholars and would-be filmmakers.

    Gitt also contributes to the newly recorded audio commentary, which also includes second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, and author Preston Neal Jones (author of the 2004 book Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter). Given their combined insight into the film and direct knowledge of its production, this commentary is also essential listening. Many of those participants also appear in a new 40-minute retrospective documentary The Making of The Night of the Hunter, which also includes interviews with producer Paul Gregory and author Jeffrey Couchman, who wrote the 2009 book The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film (strangely enough, although newly produced by Criterion, this doc is not presented in high-def). There is also a new 10-minute interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, who elaborates on the director’s personal history. Criterion has, of course, also scoured the archives, coming up with a 1984 interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show in which Peter Graves and Shelley Winters perform a scene cut from the film that helps explain why Willa was so willing to marry Powell, and a 15-minute episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film’s production. Finally, the disc includes a gallery of 18 sketches by author Davis Grubb that Laughton used to create some of the film’s most memorable imagery and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features two essays, one by Terrence Rafferty and one by Michael Sragow.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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