"The Night of the Hunter" (Blu-ray)
Review by Wayne A. Klein
Release Date: 11/16/10
Special Features: Commentary, documentaries, outtakes, photos, essays
Combining elements of Southern Gothic with German Expressionism Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" remains an unusual classic. It manages to combine suspense, broad elements of satire, and a dollop of compassion. This is an influence of D. W. Griffith's stylized dramas. Laughton even went so far as to cast Griffith regular Lillian Gish in a pivotal role that echoes her work for Griffith from the silent era. Laughton tells a story that Faulkner or O'Connor might have although with a slightly less populist touch. Featuring an amazing performance from Robert Mitchum that is, at turns, sincere, evil, psychopathic and just south of over-the-top, actor Laughton ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Mutiny on the Bounty")was in his 50's when he made his first film in collaboration with director of photography Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificient Ambersons")and acclaimed writer James Agee ("The African Queen" the Pulitzer Prize winning novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY)but it's clear that he paid attention on all of those movie sets. A box office dud when it was released the audience at the time didn't know what to make of Laughton's film. Laughton never directed a film again. Luckily audiences rediscovered this stylized film which is as droll as it is sincere and suspenseful.
There is no doubt that "The Night of the Hunter" is an acquired taste like some of Hitchcock and Welles' films but for those who appreciate the film this is the ultimate edition and essential. The film like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" and Welles' "The Magnificient Ambersons" focuses on how we saw ourselves in the era the film is set not necessarily on how we really WERE at the time. There is a stylized, theatrical quality to the film that wasn't unnatural for the era. Unlike a contemporary film Laughton wasn't trying to create something that reflects the real world but like the Southern Gothic origins of the story tell a story that reflects the myths, legends and stories of the south that were often told as parables to entertain, enlighten and frighten.
While Laughton didn't have the free reign to adapt the film including all of the darker elements of the novel (the Code was still in effect and all scripts had to be submitted for review prior to production and release) resulting in a film that often has a number of surreal moments that don't exactly fit the needs of the narrative. Laughton pared down Agee's script cutting a fair amount of material to make the film as concise as possible adding to the mystery of the film at times; we don't know why the Preacher behaves the way he does we just know that he is completely crazy. In many respects Mitchum's Preacher reflects every crazy con man that drifted through the south during the Great Depression trying to fleece those that were barely surviving and justifying his "mission" to some funhouse mirror reflection of God.
How does it look? Having seen the MGM release of "The Night of the Hunter" on DVD (and in Meltnitz at UCLA)I can state that Criterion's Blu-ray (and I'm sure the DVD since it was prepared from the same 2K high definition master)looks the best it ever has on home video. That doesn't mean for those you of you raised on digital video without film grain that the grain has been removed--the fine grain and textures of the film are intact and give the film the marvelous ominious quality it had when it played in theaters removing the murky blacks that were a hallmark of the MGM DVD.
The story based on the novel by Davis Grubb (who contributed sketches and comments to Agee and Laughton in pre- production)focuses on a traveling preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum)who is after the money a bank robber (the late Peter Graves)stole to help his wife (Shelly Winters) and children. Cellmates in prison Powell goes on the hunt for the money after the money of the robber after his execution. He woos and weds the widow of his cellmate terrifying her children while playing the pious minister as he searches for the money suspecting that the children are the only ones who know where it is hidden.
As with all Criterion discs you pay a lot for this BUT you get a lot in return if you are a fan of the film and a film buff. We get a deluxe 28 page booklet with essays about Laughton and writer Agee by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow with plenty of production and behind-the-scenes photos from the film. As film critic F. X. Feeney and assistant director Terry Saunders point out in their excellent commentary track the film was made on the studio lot with a budget of around $700,000 and Laughton spent an exhausting amount of time with his actors to get the best performances he could including the children in the film (Feeney and Saunders point out that Robert Mitchum's biography which suggested that HE directed the child actors is nothing more than fantasy--perhaps he did some time as an actor coaching them but Laughton despite his dislike of children spent the time with them he needed to coach them)going to far as to scrap ALL the footage with one actor and reshooting them with a new performer.
We also get an excellent interview with actor/writer and Laughton biographer Simon Callow ("Five Weddings and A Funeral")focusing on Laughton's career and the making of the film. An excerpt from "The Ed Sullivan Show" is included where the cast perform a deleted scene from the film as well as archival interviews with Mitchum and Cortez. The big attraction though is the new documentary on the making of the film that includes new interviews and on the second disc "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter' a two and a half hour compilation of behind-the-scenes footage, stills, and outtakes from the movie.
Robert Gitt of the UCLA Archives who provided the print used for this restoration also appears in an interview with Film Historian and critic Leonard Maltin discussing the "Charles Laughton Directs" special feature on disc two. Gitt a long time fixture of the archives has helped shepherd hundreds of films from being swallowed by the mist of history. The work that the archive has done in collaboration with MGM, Criterion and other studios/production companies has been essential in maintaining our cultural history on film. Without them we would have had the disaster that occurred with many silent films disintegrating during the early sound era of the 20th century. During that time frame (from the 30's until the 60's) transferring silent movies was a low priority and many of them either were destroyed in disasters or by the time studios got around to recognizing that silent films were assets were far too gone to do anything with them. We're lucky that films such as "Metropolis" have managed to survive in private collections enabling the reconstruction of missing footage. I fear for the digital era movies that we have coming out because unlike film itself once the data is gone reconstruction may be impossible.
If you've never seen "The Night of the Hunter" I would probably recommend renting it first to see if it is a movie that appeals to you. Laughton's unusual tone and approach to the material makes "Hunter" a film that not everyone appreciates. If you love the film I would definitely pick up the Criterion edition because although it IS expensive, it has an exhaustive catalog of special features covering almost every aspect of the film.
It's a pity that Laughton was so discouraged by the reception of this film as his next project was an film of "The Naked and the Dead" and based on "Hunter" I imagine film fans would have been in for a treat.