The Night of the Hunter (Blu-ray)
Directed by Charles Laughton
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 93 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 49.95
Release Date: November 16, 2010
Review Date: November 12, 2010
Not every great actor can make a first class director, but in the case of Charles Laughton, greatness came both before and behind the camera. His The Night of the Hunter was badly marketed and mostly ignored in its initial release, but time has been kind to the film, one of the most eccentric yet effective dramas ever made, and now it’s clear there has never been anything else quite like it in the annuls of American cinema. It’s beautifully and brilliantly composed but with a mix of styles that defies categorization. It’s an undoubted original, and it’s as compelling to watch the tenth time as it is the first.
Psychotic serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) masquerades as a preacher to worm his way into the good graces of wealthy widows whom he kills for their money. From his jail cell shared with convicted killer and thief Ben Harper (Peter Graves), he learns of a stolen $10,000 that only his children (Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce) know the hiding place of, so he insinuates himself into the life of Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) so he can get his hands on the money. But the children aren’t talking, and once they realize Harry’s murderous intentions, they escape down the river with him in hot pursuit. They’re taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who foster-mothers other children, but Harry has his own plans of getting what he wants out of the Harper children.
After painstakingly studying the silent films of D. W. Griffith, Charles Laughton decided he wanted to capture the same tone and pace and even look of those silent films, so the movie is loaded with Griffith touches including long takes, irises, wipes, and an unsettling mixture of real locations and stylized studio sets, both interiors and exteriors. The stylization is especially keen in the striking use of shadows and pools of light throughout the movie, and Stanley Cortez’s exquisite camerawork captures so many memorable visuals: the absolutely haunting body amid the underwater bulrushes that is probably the film’s most astounding image, the creepy pursuit of the children in the cellar as they make their escape and the even more disquieting silhouetted shot of the preacher in the distance slowly loping along on his horse stalking the children as the boy watches horrified at their predicament, the long, slow, mystical rafting down the river as nature looks on in complete innocence. Laughton does so much with so very little: sets that don’t amount to more than a chair, a table and a backdrop dissolve into nothingness because the people inhabiting the frame are so mesmerizing. And the very gripping story is produced without much melodrama even if things do go a little screwy near the end when a lynch mob begins forming; Laughton has his actors underplaying roles that could have been pitched to the rafters. Instead, we project our own fears and dreads onto what they’re doing, and the result is magic.
Robert Mitchum never played another role quite like Harry Powell, and his madness manifests itself in little, subtle ways: a crinkle of a smile, a bit of a raised eyelid, or, in one shocking moment, a scream of anguished frustration at being so close to the money and yet its just being out of his grasp. It’s undoubtedly one of his greatest performances. Also delivering sensationally is child actor Billy Chapin so in control and yet with the kid still peeking out from time to time as John Harper. Lillian Gish’s quiet but sturdy turn as the foster mother reeling from her own son’s desertion is the heart of the picture, a no nonsense, grounded woman who’ll fight to the death to protect what’s hers. Shelley Winters as the deceived Willa makes the most of her few scenes and is never more effective than in the scenes after she realizes the true nature of her marriage. James Gleason has a couple of good sequences as Uncle Birdie, well meaning but ineffectual friend to John. Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe as Willa’s meddlesome neighbors who are completely taken in by Powell’s treachery etch their characters with homespun surety.
The film has been framed at 1.66:1 and is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While contrast for the most part is beautifully dialed in resulting in a most appealing and detailed black and white image, there are some shots which have obviously been taken from prints a generation or so removed from the rest and appear less sharp and detailed. On the whole, however, the picture is gorgeous, and blacks continually reach the depths of inky richness, a good thing since shadows play an integral part in the composition of almost all of the photography in the movie. There’s some jitter in the aerial photography at the start of the picture (not the fault of the transfer), and there is a small scratch or two that come and go quickly. Grain is in clear evidence with no sign of any DNR smoothing. The film has been divided into 25 chapters.
The PCM (2.3 Mbps) 1.0 audio track is typical for its era mixing the dialogue, sound effects, and music clearly into the center channel. Early on, there is some light hiss that can be heard, but it’s not a constant irritant, and for the most part, the audio mix is just right for the style of the movie with nature sounds, the gospel tunes, and Walter Schumann’s wonderful score all nicely delivered.
The following bonuses are contained on disc one of this two disc set.
The audio commentary is by critic F. N. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, second unit director Terry Sanders, and film expert Preston Neal Jones. The four men discuss the movie and ask pertinent questions about its making that keep the conversation lively and interesting for the entire span of the film. It’s a must-listen.
“The Making of The Night of the Hunter” has these same four men along with producer Paul Gregory and others discussing the production of the film in a 38-minute featurette in 1080i.
Actor Simon Callow discusses director Charles Laughton whom he’s written books on in an interesting 10 ½ minute interview presented in 1080p.
“Moving Pictures” is a 1995 documentary produced as an introduction to the film before its presentation on BBC2. The 14 ½-minute feature is in 1080i.
An excerpt from The Ed Sullivan Show presents a live reenactment of a scene cut from the film with Peter Graves and Shelley Winters as husband and wife speaking in prison before he goes to the gallows. It’s in 1080i and runs 4 minutes.
A 1984 interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez focuses on his important contributions to the movie and his opinions of Charles Laughton as a director. It runs 13 minutes in 1080i.
A succession of original author David Grubbs’ sketches for scenes in the movie which Charles Laughton used almost as storyboards for certain sequences are presented in a step through section of the disc.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 1 ¾ minutes in 1080p.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
Disc Two contains additional bonus features.
Film historians Robert Gitt and Leonard Maltin discuss the outtake feature which comprises the bulk of disc two in this set. Gitt explains how he came into possession of the outtake footage from The Night of the Hunter and its unusual journey from Charles Laughton’s garage to the 2002 New York Film Festival where it was a sold out event. The discussion/introduction lasts 17 minutes in 1080p.
“Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter” is the extraordinary compilation feature film by Robert Gitt combining narration with outtakes selected and linked together from over eight hours of footage left by Laughton after his death. Running 159 minutes in 1080p, this fascinating look behind the scenes of the making of this amazing movie features Laughton directing from off camera with special attention to the children’s performances.
The enclosed 30-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some evocative stills from the movie, an appreciative essay on the film by critic Terrence Rafferty, and some thoughts on screenwriter James Agee by film scholar Michael Sragow.
4.5/5 (not an average)
A great film and an underrated one even today, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter features terrific high definition video and audio and a gallery of bonus features which greatly enhance the experience of the film. Highly recommended!