Blu-ray: Must Own!
4.5 Stars out of 5
List Price $49.95
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Release Date: November 16th, 2010
Movie Release Year: 1955
Release Country: United States
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The Night of the Hunter

Review Date December 16th, 2010 by
Overview - The Night of the Hunter—incredibly, the only film the great actor Charles Laughton ever directed—is truly a standalone masterwork. A horror movie with qualities of a Grimm fairy tale, it stars a sublimely sinister Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) as a traveling preacher named Harry Powell (he of the tattooed knuckles), whose nefarious motives for marrying a fragile widow, played by Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank) are uncovered by her terrified young children. Graced by images of eerie beauty and a sneaky sense of humor, this ethereal, expressionistic American classic—also featuring the contributions of actress Lillian Gish (Intolerance, Duel in the Sun) and writer James Agee—is cinema’s quirkiest rendering of the battle between good and evil.
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  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs: Two-Disc Blu-ray Set
    2 BD-50 Dual-Layer Discs
    Region A Locked
    Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:93
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):1.66:1
    English Descriptive Audio: English LPCM Mono
    Subtitles/Captions: English SDH
    Special Features: Audio Commentary
    Featurettes
    Gallery of Sketches
    Trailer
    Booklet
    Movie Studio: Criterion
    Release Date: November 16th, 2010

Story Review Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

5 Stars out of 5

As is so often the case, 'The Night of the Hunter' goes down as yet another motion picture that was not recognized during its own time as the work of film art that it truly is. It failed both financially and with the audiences of 1955, generating more controversy than actual interest for watching the noir-like feature. It was meant to be the directorial debut of Charles Laughton, known for his highly-regarded and praised performances in such films as 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' 'Les Misérables (1935),' and 'Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).' Sadly, it became instead the only movie ever directed by the British actor. He died seven years later.

But like the two children in the story, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce), drifting down the river to find salvation, the film has also been rescued from obscurity and from being consigned to oblivion. With time, it has come to be appreciated as a masterpiece of 1950s cinema and applauded as one of the most beautiful and lasting motion pictures ever created. I hate to imagine initial audiences were incapable of recognizing the real magnificence writhing beneath this exquisite crime thriller. I prefer to think, along with many others, moviegoers were simply not ready for the mix of tragic realism and art afforded by the still emerging genre of the Southern Gothic tale, a style of storytelling which often deals with the grotesque and malformed souls of people.

Adapted from the novel by Davis Grubb, which is itself inspired by the real-life serial killer Harry Powers, 'The Night of the Hunter' is a horror film unlike any other. Ever made. Set during the Depression in a small town of West Virginia, the story is also a sad tale with melancholic figures who openly show their heavy-hearts on their faces and in their monologues. The conversations between characters is one of the finer aspects of the narrative, matched by Laughton's uneasy, hurried pace and unusual editing to quickly put the plot in motion. Initially, the whole first act feels rather amateurish or the obvious mistakes of a beginner, but later, we come to realize it's all part of the director's approach, one technique to his overall style.

After Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is hanged for a robbery in which two men died, Willa (Shelly Winters) bears the burden of raising their children — the only two who know the secret location of the stolen money. The family has become somewhat of a legend and the gossip of citizens. Willa's friends encourage or rather coax her into believing she needs a man in her life and should remarry because it looks better than a widowed single mother. Coincidentally, a mysterious man in black rides into the sleepy town aboard the terrifying and alarming screeches of the locomotive. The entire sequence is beautifully done, alternating between friendly advice spoken gently into Willa's ears and a large, black metal train barreling towards us on the screen.

The man is none other than Robert Mitchum in arguably his most memorable and brilliant performance as the fearsome Reverend Harry Powell. The character's malicious villainy and sadistic brutality — slitting Willa's throat with his switchblade and threatening the children at knife point — remains just as shocking today as it must have been for audiences in 1955. And Mitchum's portrayal is really what makes Powell such a fearful and intimidating monster. There is a frightening awfulness to his determination and bold persistence, and it's not only in his dogged pursuit of the children. It's in his warped sense of stalwart faith, his complete and steadfast belief that he's performing God's will through violence and murder.

It is through him — and of course, his tattooed knuckles with the words LOVE on the right and HATE on the left — that viewers are made aware of the film's ultimate theme. This is a story on the never-ending battle between good and evil, with the country preacher finally meeting his match in Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a feisty old woman who takes in runaway kids. Powell is a sinister and dark form of blind faith and religious fanaticism whereas Miz Cooper is the healthy hand of pedagogy and moral character. More important is the idea of children learning of the horrors of reality, the cruelty inflicted on the innocent from those corrupted by greed and anger. Gish has some of the most powerful lines of the entire film, such as "It's a hard world for little things," "Children are man at his strongest" and "They abide, and they endure."

Added to all this is the gorgeous and striking cinematography of Stanley Cortez ('The Magnificent Ambersons'), providing another layer to the overall theme but also making 'The Night of the Hunter' one of the most magnificently photographed films in cinematic history. Taking after German Expressionist films of the early century, the thriller is awash in deep, menacing shadows which are contrasted by brightly-lit daylight scenes, suggesting this conflict between light and dark, good versus evil. The downriver boat sequence is the crown jewel of the entire movie, with images of innocent critters as both observers of the senseless violence and ignorant of its meanings or consequences. It's a spectacular highlight in a film that amazingly makes the ugliness of the world oddly beautiful and captivating.

Despite being the only feature he ever directed, Charles Laughton proved himself an indelible cinematic artist with a motion picture ahead of its time. 'The Night of the Hunter' is a brilliant masterpiece that has gone on to influence such renowned filmmakers as Terrence Malick, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers. It's an exceptional horror film that deserves all the accolades and appreciation it receives today.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

'The Night of the Hunter' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #541) as a two-disc Blu-ray edition. The two Region A-locked, BD50 discs are housed in a tri-fold cardboard box with each disc on opposing plastic panels and a slipcover that features a scene from the movie on the front. Inside is also a 28-page booklet with pictures taken from the film. It features two worthwhile essays fans will enjoy reading. The first is "Holy Terror" by Terrence Rafferty, and the second is by Michael Sragow entitled "Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee." There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.

  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs:
    Two-Disc Blu-ray Set
    2 BD-50 Dual-Layer Discs
    Region A Locked
    Video Resolution/Codec:
    1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:93
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):
    1.66:1
    Audio Formats:
    English LPCM Mono
    Subtitles/Captions:
    English SDH
    Special Features:
    Audio Commentary
    Featurettes
    Gallery of Sketches
    Trailer
    Booklet
    Movie Studio: Criterion
    Release Date: November 16th, 2010

Video Review

4 Stars out of 5

As a film often considered one of the most beautifully photographed motion pictures of all time, the pressure is on the technical wizards at Criterion to satisfy expectations and provide a stunner. Considering its age, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode doesn't disappoint, with excellent picture quality, presented for the first time in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. As mentioned in the accompanying booklet, the transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and scanned in 2k resolution with some mild DNR applied to remove any visible dirt and debris.

The spellbinding and other-worldly cinematography of Stanley Cortez — an intriguing blend of silent era melodrama and German expressionism — looks absolutely beautiful in high definition. Brightness levels are splendid, rendering inky rich and penetrating blacks throughout. Contrast is pitch-perfect, displaying crisp and brilliant whites that never bloom or overpower the rest of the picture. Except for some very minor and likely negligible instances of posterization, the image exhibits superb natural gradations for a perceptible depth of field and dimension. There is also a thin veil of noticeable grain, providing the high-def transfer with an appreciable cinematic quality.

Aside from some age-related softness and a small dip in resolution levels, the presentation comes with wonderful definition and clarity. Viewers can clearly make out all the fine lines and textures of the elaborate set designs, clothing and surrounding foliage. Much of the film is bathed in deep, suffocating shadows, which plays an important role to the narrative. Thankfully, details don't suffer or falter in this area and remain distinct and visible from beginning to end. 'The Night of the Hunter' looks spectacular on Blu-ray.

Audio Review

4 Stars out of 5

As is also mentioned in the booklet, the monaural soundtrack used for this Blu-ray comes from the 2001 restoration work supervised by distinguished Preservation Officer Robert Gitt of UCLA Film & Television Archive. Made from a variety sources, the result is a first-rate uncompressed PCM mono track that brilliantly complements the beautiful imagery of this classic crime thriller.

The film is mostly driven by the visuals and aesthetics for creating suspense, but character interaction and conversations are, of course, important for establishing an emotional depth. Dialogue reproduction is excellent, providing clear, intelligible tonal inflections emitted by the actors. The one-channel presentation also delivers a surprisingly wide dynamic range with superb clarity detail and acoustics. Subtle atmospheric effects can be clearly heard throughout the film's runtime to give the mix an appreciable sense of space and presence. Despite being restricted to the center speaker, 'The Night of the Hunter' comes with a striking lossless track that fans will surely love.

Special Features

5 Stars out of 5

The Criterion Collection brings an amazing treasure trove of supplements for this Blu-ray edition of 'The Night of the Hunter.' Spanning two discs and mirroring its DVD counterpart, most all of the bonus material is being released for the first time on the home video market. For fans of this horror masterpiece, the collection is exceptional and worth the price of admission alone.

Disc One

  • Audio Commentary — Recorded in 2008, this audio track is highly informative and enlightening thanks to the fine group of men involved. It features film archivist Robert Gitt, well-known film critic of Z Channel F.X. Feeney, author of Heaven and Hell to Play With Preston Neal Jones, and second-unit director Terry Sanders. A great deal of the conversation is, of course, on the history of the movie, Charles Laughton's direction, but the discussion also includes several comments on the film's initial reception, it's immense influence and rise to a cinematic treasure, how each participant came to discover it and some wonderful thoughts on the film's themes. This is a terrific commentary, worth listening for those with an interest in film history.

  • The Making of The Night of the Hunter (1080i/60, 38 min) — This is a very well-made short doc that offers an in-depth but brief and abrupt look at the production, the challenges faced by Charles Laughton and as much as the makers can fit in a half hour. Starting with the script's origins along with concerns and input by author Davis Grubb, the piece covers casting decisions, the cinematography, the film's controversy and publicity, and the reception during its initial release. Interviews include the same men in the commentary track together with producer Paul Gregory and others personally involved. It's a recommended companion piece after watching the movie.

  • Simon Callow on Charles Laughton (HD, 11 min) — Recorded in London earlier this year, the interview has the actor and author Simon Callow talking extensively about Charles Laughton, the man. His comments are surprisingly insightful and fascinating, discussing Laughton's lasting fame and career, the film and its many themes, and the filmmaker's secret personal life.

  • Moving Pictures (1080i/60, 14 min) — Originally aired in January 1995, this entertaining episode on 'The Night of the Hunter' shows great interviews with various members of the cast and crew. The comments range from James Agee's initial script, influences on Laughton, and the film's marketing.

  • The Ed Sullivan Show (1080i/60, 4 min) — This is a brief excerpt from an episode that originally aired in September 1955. It shows Shelly Winters and Peter Graves reenacting a scene that was never filmed.

  • Stanley Cortez (1080i/60, 13 min) — This interview with the renowned cinematographer has him talking about his career, with particular attention given to 'The Night of the Hunter.' While the interview is in French, Cortez answers in English, and it was filmed for the American Society of Cinematographers in 1984.

  • David Grubb's Sketches (HD) — A small assortment of the author's sketches given to Laughton as ideas for the film.

  • Trailer (HD)—The original theatrical preview rounds out the first disc.

Disc Two

  • Introduction (HD, 17 min) — A terrific conversation between film critic Leonard Maltin and film archivist Robert Gitt recorded just for this Criterion release of 'The Night of the Hunter.' While the two offer a few talking points on the film's history and its director, the discussion is mostly centered around Gitt's restoration efforts and the preservation of rare footage from the production, which he used for making a unique documentary about the film. A few comments are also on the documentary reception.

  • Documentary: "Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter" (HD, 159 min) — Available for the first time, Robert Gitt's 2002 documentary is shown here in its entirety, which could only be seen previously during film festivals. The movie showcases the archivist's exhaustive 20-year collection of rushed footage, deleted scenes and outtakes. Despite its daunting runtime, the comprehensive and in-depth piece is surprisingly — a must see featurette for fans of the classic film, its history, or those with a general interest in the filmmaking process.

    The documentary commences with a brief record of Laughton's career and a recap of the novel and the actor's desire to adapt it for the screen. The footage is shown in the same order as the movie and includes several notes about the casting and a brief history of the actors. The most fascinating aspect, and a primary reason for watching this is listening to Laughton give stage directions and learn more of his methodology. This is a marvelous piece on one of the greatest films ever made that pretty much covers every aspect imaginable surrounding Laughton's masterpiece.

Final Thoughts

Despite being a box-office and critical failure during its initial theatrical release, 'The Night of the Hunter' has since become widely recognized as one of the most beautifully photographed and remarkable films in cinema history. As the first and only film ever directed by the renowned British actor Charles Laughton, 'Hunter' is also an influential masterpiece of cinematic art. The Criterion Collection brings this stunning masterwork to high-def Blu-ray with an excellent and marvelous audio/video presentation which does the film justice. The two-disc edition also comes with an outstanding wealth of bonus features that includes film archivists Robert Gitt's wonderful documentary, which is made available for the first time to home viewers. Overall, this is a must-own for cinema lovers!

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  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs:
    Two-Disc Blu-ray Set
    2 BD-50 Dual-Layer Discs
    Region A Locked
    Video Resolution/Codec:
    1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:93
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):
    1.66:1
    Audio Formats:
    English LPCM Mono
    Subtitles/Captions:
    English SDH
    Special Features:
    Audio Commentary
    Featurettes
    Gallery of Sketches
    Trailer
    Booklet
    Movie Studio: Criterion
    Release Date: November 16th, 2010