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The Night of the Hunter joins the ranks of such movies as John Carpenter's The Thing, It's a Wonderful Life, and The Shawshank Redemption as a now classic that was initially shunned upon its theatrical release. Famed English actor Charles Laughton (Spartacus, Witness for the Prosecution, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) made his directorial debut with The Night of the Hunter and after a critical drubbing and terrible box office receipts The Night of the Hunter ended up being his sole directing credit. Criterion is finally bringing this Robert Mitchum classic to Blu-ray in a newly remastered edition.
Facts of the Case
Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, The Night of the Hunter follows Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear, Scrooged), a methodical serial killer who is caught stealing a car and thrown in jail. His cellmate ends up being Ben Harper (Peter Graves, TV's Mission: Impossible), a bank robbing killer who's about to meet the wrong end of a noose for his crimes. Before being put to death Ben Harper informs Harry that he's hidden ten thousand dollars and his children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) are the only ones who know where it is. After Ben's death and Harry's release, the slithering Powell makes his way to Ben Harper's widow (Shelly Winters) and children under the guise of being a man of God. This sets off a chain of events that will force the wills of Ben Harper's two children, as Harry proceeds to do everything in his sinister power to find Ben's hidden treasures.
The Night of the Hunter is one of the eeriest, weirdest, and darkest films to come out of the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s. Released in 1955 to poor critical reviews and even worse box office returns, the film became actor Charles Laughton's one and only moment in the director's chair. A shame, then, that we never got to see what else Laughton had up his sleeve for this is a film made by a master of the genre. The Night of the Hunter is like a living, breathing nightmare that features a stellar performance by Robert Mitchum as the screen's most vile preacher imaginable.
Laughton's The Night of the Hunter is something of a marvel considering its timing and history. The 1950s are not remembered as a time of complexity or darkness—in fact, that '50s are often recalled as a moment of joy, simplicity and fun. It's this contrast that makes The Night of the Hunter stand out from most thrillers of the time. Laughton's film features a dreamlike quality that wrestles unease from the viewer's grasp. Robert Mitchum is so evil and engrossing as the manipulative Harry Powell that he's almost impossible to forget, even days after the film's credits have closed. Mitchum had been arrested for possession of marijuana a few years before The Night of the Hunter was made and his time in prison served him well—we believe that Powell is capable of doing whatever is necessary to get Ben Harper's money. Forty-five years later and Mitchum's Harry Powell is still one of the most powerful and disturbing villains ever to grace the silver screen.
Mitchum is surrounded by a wonderful cast, not the least of which is a fragile Shelly Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) as Powell's unsuspecting new wife and eventual victim. Her final moments on screen are undeniably chilling and part of what make this film so evocative. Hollywood legend Lillian Gish is sufficiently religious and loving in her roll as an elderly matriarch almost pulled in by Powell's ruse, and Peter Graves (Airplane!) has an effective cameo in the beginning of the film that gets the ball rolling on the story. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the two child actors—Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce—and their almost otherworldly performances. Sally Jane Bruce is especially good, all innocence in the face of Powell's corruption.
One of the best things about The Night of the Hunter is the set decoration. Not content to feature just darkness and light, Laughton took special care to craft scenes of dread and menace out of silhouette, shape and contrast. Grassy hills and jagged houses often take on a looming quality that seems almost Tim Burton-esque in their shape. One famous scene involving Powell's search for the children in the basement is so stark and specific—only a portion of the screen is used—that it can be seen as a precursor to many other future horror movies.
As I'm writing this review I'm realizing that I only have praise for Night of the Hunter—it is in almost every way a perfect film (and that's not something I say very often as a critic). The writing is taught and fluid; the performances are striking and memorable; the set design, music and cinematography are all wonderfully realized and evocative. There has simply never been another movie like The Night of the Hunter (skip the 1991 made-for-TV remake starring Richard Chamberlain). Laughton may have been dismissed as a director in 1955, but in 2010 The Night of the Hunter is now a classic of the first order. Highly recommended.
The Night of the Hunter is presented in 1.67:1 widescreen 1080p. This new transfer—scrubbed clean of any debris, scratches or dirt, looks absolutely fantastic. If I recall correctly MGM released this years ago in a non-anamorphic transfer. Criterion has corrected this mistake by bringing the black and white photography into sharp focus. While not perfect, this transfer is so sharp (with a fine grain that gives it a warm filmic look), fans will be more than happy with upgrading their old DVD version.
The soundtrack is presented in LPCM 1.0 in English (the only available audio mix, and really the only one that you'll need). Taken from a 2001 restoration, this master audio mix is crisp, well mixed and solid in terms of dialogue, music and sound effects. Although your sound system may not get a huge workout, this is an accurate representation of the original soundtrack. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
The following is a quick rundown of the special features included on this 2-disc Blu-ray set:
"Commentary Track"—a great commentary featuring second unit director Terry Sanders, film archivist Robert Gitt, critic F.X. Feeney and author Neal Jones. This commentary covers a lot of area, including Laughton's life, the film and its history.
"The Making of Night of the Hunter"—a documentary that features interviews with producer Paul Gregory, second-unit director Terry Sanders and other historians and crew members,
"The Ed Sullivan Show"—an except from the classic talk show featuring actors Peter Graves and Shelly Winters performing a deleted scene from the film.
"Simon Callow on Charles Laughton"—Author Simon Callow discussing Laughton's work and life, focusing especially on his directorial debut.
"Moving Pictures"—a short documentary on The Night of the Hunter that features interviews with the cast and crew (Mitchum, Winters, Gish, director of photography Stanley Cortez, etc.).
"Staley Cortez"—a 1984 interview with the director of photography discussing his work on the film (and in general).
"Charles Laughton Directors 'Night of the Hunter'"—a comprehensive two and a half hour film that is an essential for any fan of the film (or of Laughton in general). This film features outtakes, behind the scenes footage, interviews, stills and much more.
Finally there is a "Davis Grubb Sketches" section (in HD), an introduction featuring Robert Gitt and critic Leonard Maltin and a 30-page booklet with two essays on the film.
Criterion has done an absolutely fantastic job on The Night of the Hunter. With a bevy of extra features, a beautiful transfer and nice audio mix, this is a no-brainer for fans to pick up.
The Night of the Hunter is an easy recommendation for any classic film
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