NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
Review by Gordon Justesen
Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter
Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chaplin, Gloria Castillo, Sally Jane Bruce
Director: Charles Laughton
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 93 Minutes
Release Date: November 16, 2010
“I can hear you whisperin', children...”
There are few films that have accomplished so much over time like The Night of the Hunter, the first and only directorial effort from acclaimed actor Charles Laughton. Disregarded at the time of its initial release, this film has gone on to garner the same level of worldwide appreciation that such later films as Blade Runner and The Shining would deservedly get years after they got the shaft from either audiences or critics. I have just now seen it for the very first time, and I can tell you right off the bat that this is one of the greatest pieces of work to ever be put on celluloid.
While watching it, I had to keep reminding myself that this was released in 1955. I simply couldn't believe that such a something of this type was able to get pass the censors. Here was a film that had challenged several issues, mainly religion, and featured a lead character who had to be the single most horrifying predecessor to Norman Bates.
And like Psycho, which would surface five years later, this film pulls the rug out from under you in a somewhat similar fashion. Several characters who appear to be set up as pivotal characters in the story are wiped out by the hands of the sinister lead characters. Of course, it wasn't uncommon to see characters get killed in movies prior to the establishing of the rating system, but the way it happens here and the circumstances surrounding the murders seem to deliver a much bigger effect than what I'm sure what audiences were used to seeing at the time.
But the real kicker is the man behind the killings; a tattooed, switchblade carrying, traveling preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who gleefully carries out what he feels is God's wrath whenever he feels it's necessary. Religious fanatic doesn't even begin to describe this man, who speaks to God frequently in between his evil deeds. It's very clear, at least to me, that this man is the devil in disguise.
The story kicks off right away when desperate family man Ben Harper (a young, pre-Mr. Phelps Peter Graves), arrives home with $10,000 in stolen cash. With the cops soon closing in, Ben begs of his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), to stash the money and tell absolutely nobody of its whereabouts. The plan is to make sure the children don't end up penniless when they become adults, as Ben is clearly sacrificing himself for their secured future.
Ben does get the death sentence (not a harsh punishment at all, right?), and during his brief jail time, he manages to let the information slip to his bunk mate. That bunk mate turns out to be none other than Reverend Harry. Before long, Harry has broken out of prison with only one mission in mind, to locate the stolen cash even if it means having to woo the grieving widow Ben left behind...and given the fact that Harry already has a track record of slaying women with his switchblade, which he sees as his “flaming sword”, we know this can't turn out pleasant at all.
Once arriving in the town of Cresap's Landing, Harry sets his plan in motion by essentially planting the townsfolk in his grasp. He manages to engross a crowd at a candy shop with a tale of the forces of good and evil, using the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles to tell the story. This, of course, would inspire one of the many memorably sequences in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, where the message was used to a much more positive effect.
By doing this, it shows Harry already gaining the trust of the public, thus illustrating the horrific effect that religion has on people when conducted by a false prophet. In the back of my mind, I kept wanting Harry to run into a bowling pin carrying Daniel Plainview so I could picture a satisfying image. But Laughton was really onto something in bringing to the screen the most insane religious fanatical characterization to date (not even Marcia Gay Harden's character in The Mist can hold a candle to Harry Powell, which is truly saying something.)
And the illustration of the damaging effect is made even further when, after winning over the crowd in the candy store, the owner advises Harry to consider becoming a suitor to his desired target, the recently widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). As intended, he charms his way into her life and earns her trust. While doing so, he wastes no time in confronting young John and Pearl on the issue of the stashed money's location.
Watching this film for the first time in this time and era, you feel like the subject of a shock experiment, and I don't mean like in a Lars Von Trier fashion. It goes back to what I said earlier about seeing what all could be gotten away with in a 1955, release. No other sequence startled me more than the one midway through the film, where we see the aftermath of a character's demise (and given the movie star involved, I instantly thought of Psycho yet again).
But what makes The Night of the Hunter such a legendary piece of filmmaking is that it has not only stood the test of time as a unique horror movie, but it perhaps is even scarier today than it was during its initial release. Certain themes the film explores, especially that of fanatical religion, are still relevant to today's times. I had heard much talk about how scary the scenes late in the film where Harry pursues the children in various darkened areas, but no hype surrounding those moments could prepare me for just how frightening they really are.
I can also imagine how much this movie served as an inspiration for the cat-and-mouse scenario. This film features one of the most mind blowingly brilliant chase sequences certainly for the time period. It involves the two kids fleeing Harry by boat down a river. The way in which Laughton shoots this sequence, with Harry seen galloping in pursuit on his horse in the background, really has to be seen to be believed and astonished by.
After seeing his work in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I didn't possibly think Robert Mitchum could've delivered a more legendary performance. Boy, was I ever wrong! I had never seen Mitchum in a villainous role (I still have yet to visit the original Cape Fear) but as the relentless and psychopathic preacher, he strikes fear in you in his every minute on the screen, especially when he lets out a menacing howl late in the film that has to be one of the most spine-tingling sounds in motion picture history.
It's really unfortunate that Charles Laughton never got to direct another feature again. The initial failure of the film during its theatrical release resulted in Laughton losing confidence in himself as a filmmaker. But as it stands, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most brilliant filmmaking achievements of all time with a legacy and a level of worldwide acclaim it so deservedly attained 55 years down the road.
From what I can tell, I ended up discovering this film at about the most perfect time imaginable...and for two reasons. The first reason is, of course, it comes to us on a monumental Blu-ray release from Criterion. And the second reason has to do with the presentation itself. Prior to this release, the movie could only been seen in an open-matted 4:3 framed edition. But thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the film can now be experienced the way it was intended in an anamorphic 1.66:1 ratio.
And what an amazing, jaw-droppingly gorgeous presentation this is! Black and White have really shown their strength through the Blu-ray format, and this Criterion release is about the best illustration of that notion that I can possibly think of. The river boat chase sequence, alone, is worth the price of the entire package alone. During this sequence, my eyes were in absolute heaven as I was astonished by the amazing level of detail and richness that had been applied to both the backgrounds and foregrounds. The simple sight of a river flowing in Black and White resulted in one of the most astounding moving images I've seen on any Blu-ray disc! And the scenes surrounding this sequence look just as fantastic. Some grain has been left in tact, thankfully, to represent the intent of the filmmaker. There are also a huge amount of darkly lit sequences, especially late in the film, and they look even more remarkable than the normally lighted sequences, in my honest opinion. This has been quite a remarkable year for Criterion Blu-ray releases, and the amazing presentation on this release is a true high point not just for Blu-rays, but all Criterion releases in general!
The PCM Mono mix is also quite astounding. Credit the UCLA Film and Television Archive with this grand piece of audio restoration. The end result is perfected balancing of dialogue delivery (which in this case is very stylized), background music delivery (as well as occasional vocals) and assorted sound effects. To listen to the film on this audio mix, you'd have no idea that it was made 55 years ago. The delivery of Walter Schumann's haunting score will sear your aural senses to no end. And a pivotal song performance by Pearl (a truly unexpected magical moment in the film) will have a definite potent impact. A most riveting sound mix for a film with this much age!
With this title, Criterion has set a whole new standard for Blu-ray releases in terms of supplements. Let's start with the packaging which, based on the BD releases I've seen thus far from Criterion, is the absolute best one yet. And I had no idea that this was a two disc BD until I received it in the mail. Think about that, a two disc Blu-ray release from Criterion, a studio known for including as much as can possibly fit onto a single disc. In other words, what we have here is one of the best all around Blu-ray releases of this year, or any year.
On Disc One, there's a commentary with second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F.X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt and author Preston Neal Jones. As expected with a line up like that, the commentary is a one phenomenally intriguing listen as each offers amazing insight into the film's production as well as the impact it's had over the years. Next up is the documentary entitled “The Making of The Night of the Hunter”, which runs over a half hour and features in depth interviews with Terry Sanders, F.X. Feeney, Preston Neal Jones, producer Paul Gregory and author Jeffrey Couchman. There's also a new video interview with actor and Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow, footage from The Ed Sullivan Show which features cast members performing a deleted scene from the film. We also get a fifteen minute archival documentary about the film, featuring Robert Mitchum, an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a gallery of sketches by Davis Grubb (author of the novel upon which the film is based) and the Original Theatrical Trailer.
Disc Two provides a riveting two and a half hour documentary titled “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter”, which is quite revealing in exploring how Laughton went about the filmmaking process, which is quite unique, and also offers an extensive collection of outtakes and behind the scenes footage. Also featured is a video conversation with archivist Robert Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin about this very documentary.
Finally, as with every great Criterion release, there's a terrific insert booklet featuring essays from critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow.
We hear the phrase “lost classic” quite frequently in any art form, be it film, music or literature. Sometimes, it can be used to oversell a product, but I can assure you that is not the case here. Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter is indeed a treasured lost classic that has now been given its moment to officially shine by way of this magnificent Blu-ray release from Criterion. It truly is a cinematic accomplishment that must be passed down from generation to generation! And it's also one of the best Blu-ray releases you will find this year!