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.
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.
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.
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.
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!