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Night of the Hunter - Criterion Collection, The

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // November 16, 2010
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 25, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

It's easy to see why The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's sole venture in directing, wasn't celebrated upon its release. Along with an unsavory depiction of religion's hypocritical power and the terrifying ordeals that two children endure in the wake of their father's execution, the villain -- a switchblade-wielding, tattooed "preacher" -- struts along with what's best described as maddened God-driven fanaticism. While the mid-'50s acknowledged the romance in David Lean's Summertime and Delbert Mann's Marty, an adaptation of Davis Grubb's novel seemed too ugly and candid, and thus fell -- along with Laughton's confidence as a director -- under the pressure of box-office failure. Now, however, Laughton's masterstroke of densely-themed suspense still retains the same affective, disturbing edge, only its audience has changed. The context is still troubling, yet the growth in our perception of allegorical and socially-pertinent art, and of Laughton's skill in the director's chair, has affirmed its stature as both an irrefutable parable of faith and a thrilling powerhouse of a horror film.

It starts with a promise. As Ben Harper (Peter Graves), husband and father of two children, stumbles to his home with the police chasing behind while he carries a smoking pistol and $10,000 in cash, he asks his two children -- John (Billy Chapin), the eldest, and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) -- to keep a secret about where the money's hidden. He doesn't do it so he might have the cash after some time in jail, but so that the children won't have to be penniless when they grow older. But after Ben's thrown in jail following a death sentence, he lets the secret slip to a deep-voiced stranger in the bunk above him -- Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell, however, isn't your run-of-the-mill preacher; with tattoos on his fingers that read "LOVE" and "HATE" and a switchblade in his pocket, he's clearly a demented sort under the delusion that his violence echoes the wishes of a higher power. And now he has knowledge of a fistful of cash and a weeping widow, while we have knowledge of Powell's penchant for slaying women as "abominations" with his switchblade as his flaming sword.

The Night of the Hunter, as soon as Powell arrives at Cresap's Landing, simmers into an incisive depiction of how fanaticism can spread like a disease when powered by a false prophet. The demented "preacher" starts in with the story about the forces of good and evil, gripping his tattooed hands together in a simple-minded display that, naturally, woos a crowd in a candy shop. Powell then makes his presence known at a local picnic, where the townsfolk admire his physical appeal and his stability -- and the candy shop owner suggests he become a viable suitor to the widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). Nobody thinks to look into his credentials or double-think the man's intentions, showing how people are willing to unabashedly trust the words of a man spouting God's word. That manipulation of believers based on their unflinching devotion remains an insightful social dig, perhaps even more so in our own current climate. And it's not just applicable to religion, but any sect of people who piggy-back on magnetic soothsayers.

Laughton depicts humanity in a frightening light, heightened by a surrealist style that shapes the film into a nightmarish neo-realist fantasy seen through the eyes of innocent children. The Night of the Hunter pulls influence from German expressionist films, both in thematic context and in artistic focus, to create an unsettling balance between a socially pertinent depiction and a work of frightening whimsy, one where the audience both acknowledges the surrealism of the situation and the disturbing reality with which it originates. Elements of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F.W. Murnau's Faust can be spotted in cinematographer Stanley Cortez's gothic rendering of the eerie shadows and slanted angles of the rustic town of Cresap's Landing, which bolsters Powell's presence as a brooding force at the town's heart. It's gorgeous but also tremendously bleak in its visual demeanor, yet that only adds to the mood, particularly when considering that we're looking out through a child's eyes.

There aren't many villains more frightening, at least on a human level, than the booming, silver-tongued Harry Powell. Robert Mitchum's poise in the role is nothing less than staggering, exaggerated to just the right degree that one might picture as a child's memory, while the communication with his "higher power" turns unsettling within poetic, zealous lyrics -- and they obviously unsettled Mitchum as well, gauging by some of his reactions during outtakes. His frightening nature takes on a myriad of silhouettes; when he's tending to the flock at Cresap's Landing, his power to roil them up over contorted beliefs builds into a disheartened, stomach-swelling portrayal of humanity, while his influence over Willa's parenting skills and repressed sexual satisfaction paint him into a terrifying presence. His confusion over the number of widows he's accrued in his God-ordained pathway really hits the iron hot.

Powell takes on his most alarming form in the eyes of the children, though, which becomes the crux in both Laughton's film and Grubb's book as the storyline approaches John and Pearl's trip downriver. Their boat trek, a cat-and-mouse chase sparked following Powell's contorted, vile authoritative aggression, leads into a collage of images involving frogs, rabbits, owls, and other critters along the moonlit riverbank, and it's a striking flow of sequences -- with Pearl's singing as a backdrop -- that heightens the unsettling tone with a primal essence until they reach the end of their journey. There's a moment when John catches sight of Powell galloping on his horse from a distance, while hearing the sound of his singing voice, which gathers together the expressionist visual flare and the weighty dread behind the character's energy, and it's simply cinematic bliss.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about The Night of the Hunter is the way the central themes and dramatic devices spin full-circle towards a potent reflection on everything that's happened, all while retaining an effective chilliness as a thriller. John and Pearl stumble onto a stranger along the riverbank -- a hardened, sharp, shotgun-wielding gardener named Rachel Cooper, played by silent-era starlet Lillian Gish -- who isn't as susceptible to the woo of Powell's manipulation, even amid his booming doom-'n-gloom and his haunting singing voice. Seeing Rachel as Powell's contrast, a nurturing guardian who tells lyrical religious tales from the Bible with affirmation instead of hellfire, compounds the ideas of redemption and innocence into an almost Canterbury Tale-like fable amid their fiery collision. It's a shame that Laughton's sinister style and Mitchum's performance were overlooked upon the film's release, because the brimstone at its core -- perseverance of innocence and true purity of faith -- burns brightly in this cautionary fable that's controversial and divisive in all the right ways.

The Blu-ray:

After years of speculation and hope on part of the label's loyal fans, as well as general film enthusiasts desiring a proper presentation of the film, The Criterion Collection now introduces The Night of the Hunter into their collection as spine #541. Offered in a foldout packaging that houses two Blu-ray discs, the set features a terrific close-up still shot of Powell's LOVE-HATE finger tattoos as the background for the discs. Inside, a Booklet features two essays, "Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee" by Michael Sragow and "Holy Terror" by Terrence Rafferty, as well as information about the transfer process and Blu-ray/DVD production credits.

Video and Audio:

Those who have seen MGM's disc of The Night of the Hunter will find a surprise in The Criterion Collection's treatment, which has been stricken from the original 35mm negative on a Scanity film scanner at 2K resolution -- supervised by the UCLA Film & Television Archive -- for a 1080p AVC image. Most modern audiences have only seen Charles Laughton's film in the open-matted 4:3 framing, yet the intended aspect ratio is actually 1.66:1. Therefore, the viewer will see less material on the top and bottom than from the previous DVD, yet the framing feels much more adept and obviously fits in-line with the director's intent. The results are markedly up to Criterion's standards; the rendering of black-and-white contrast remains inky, solid, and appropriate amid its darker points, while a handful of sequences (especially around the trip down river) project handsome levels of detail in skin textures and set design. The presence of film grain's a bit heavier than expected, but it appears natural enough not to question its place. In short, The Night of the Hunter has obviously never looked better, assembling into a stunning achievement that's assuredly going to be one of 2010's biggest leaps forward to Blu-ray.

Coming from the 2001 UCLA restoration that derives sound elements from a 35mm positive, the 24-bit monaural audio track for The Night of the Hunter preserves the rich, stylized dialogue, vocal musical backdrop, and scattered sound effects to a degree that masks its age almost impeccably. A few lines show off the film's vintage, never inaudible but occasionally a little gruff and thin-sounding, yet the naturalness of the punchy vocals truly impresses at most points. Walter Schumann's moody scoring bombards the viewer with rich bombast at one moment, then delicately swirls around the next -- especially during Pearl's song during the river ride. A few sound effects exhibit richness that steps beyond the limitations of the sound design, such as footsteps against the wood of the Harper house and the splish-splash of water, while scattered animal noises are exceptionally clear. Only optional English subtitles are available with this release.

Special Features:

Feature-Length Audio Commentary:
Second-unit director Terry Sanders, archivist Robert Gitt, critic F.X. Feeney, and author Preston Neal Jones gather for an audio commentary, recorded in 2008. Feeney's a bit of a moderator with the other three interweaving with their expertise, Sanders chiming in about his shots and Preston Neal Jones with punches of meaningful contributions. They discuss the way Mitchum molds to a role that hadn't really been depicted on-screen before, the visual look achieved through helicopter and plate shots, the beefy script discovered that was twice the length of the shooting script, and the sly vein of humor in Mitchum's role. They also dive into some interesting thematic discussion about Powell's role, whether he's only a bully enough to muscle children and exactly what the lighter jabs at humor do to the character. Moreover, the four participants keep the rhythm bouncing along swimmingly, starting off a bit slow but picking up the conversational rhythm as it progresses.

The Making of The Night of the Hunter (37:59, HD AVC):
Obviously a piece to watch following the film, a series of interviews and snips of footage expound on the commentary in content. Yet it takes a more personal angle, discussing the impact of the film on newcomers. It then clicks into a familiar stream of content, discussing approaching Charles Laughton and the enthusiasm behind adapting the novel (as well as Laughton's quickly dismissed brainstorm for him to also play the preacher), finding the right Powell, Grubb's sketches-turned-storyboards, and editing the script. They also mill over the overall minimal budget, the film's connection to German expressionism, and Mitchum "acting in quotation marks". These interviews are meaningfully spliced with production shots and scenes from the film, and it's a great, sober package.

Simon Callow on Charles Laughton (10:35, HD AVC):
Recorded in London in 2010 specifically for this set, actor Simon Callow -- who also wrote "Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor" -- takes a personal angle in discussing the impact of The Night of the Hunter. He discusses how many don't know Laughton's name yet instantly recognize the film, and whether Laughton would be happy about that. He also reflects on the whimsy of the picture's design aesthetic and how the picture shaped him into the actor he's become.

Moving Pictures (14:18, HD AVC):
A vintage 1995 assembly piece, this 40th birthday celebration piece treks through the film's creation to a somewhat surface-level degree. What makes it worth watching are the interviews included within, featuring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Paul Gregory, as well as the archival footage featuring Laughton. It also showcases a few raw strains of footage that'll show the drastic difference between the print utilized on the Blu-ray and the condition it was in at the time period.

Also included on the first disc are an appearance from Shelley Winters and Peter Graves in an in-character appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (3:52, AVC) an archival 1984 interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (12:54, HD AVC) for the American Society of Cinematographers, a series of Davis Grubb's Sketches and a Theatrical Trailer (HD AVC) framed at 1.66:1.

All that would've been enough to sate the curious, yet there's a reason why this Blu-ray package has a $10-higher price point than most of Criterion's other releases: the second disc. What's on it? None other than Charles Laughton Directs "The Night of the Hunter" (HD AVC), the two-and-a-half hour collage of outtakes and rushed footage derived from 80,000 feet of material that Laughton's widow Elsa Lancaster donated following his death. Historian Robert Gitt made it a work of passion at two separate locations to take the material and lovingly stitch it together, culminating into eight hours of raw material that's been trimmed down to two-and-a-half hours of essentials. The "film"/"documentary" offers a refreshing and wondrous array of unused footage and alternate takes that do more than just include a few quips from Mitchum after the cut. It illustrates the build-up through different angles and takes to achieve several of the film's potent sequences, while also showing places where unorthodox decisions were made -- case in point, Laughton's request for Mitchum to yelp, following a silent take that might've worked better. An Introduction (16:32, HD AVC) features critic Leonard Maltin talking to Gitt about his experience in restoring -- and eventually screening -- this glorious slate of ephemera.

Final Thoughts:

The Night of the Hunter is one of those rare films that can change people after witnessing it. Charles Laughton's only directing effort depicts a vile, God-driven killer hunting down two children for the money he requires to continue his "work", while at the same time showcasing how the human population can be bent and shaped by the word of a misguided zealot. The tension this now well-regarded classic concocts is palpable, while the meaning coursing through its veins propels it further as a depiction of the lost innocence and false prophets wading in this little world of ours.

Long rumored to be an entry into The Criterion Collection, the wait has been absolutely worth the time; presented in a stunning high-definition transfer with the correct 1.66:1 framing and stellar audio, it's never looked -- nor likely ever will look -- better than this. And, to top it off, the supplements are extensive and utterly fascinating, boasting an insightful commentary, several excellent interview-heavy featurettes, and the entire second disc dedicated to UCLA's archival material. Do you have to ask? Of course The Night of the Hunter enters DVDTalk's Collector's Series. In fact, it might be safe to say that this Blu-ray package stands out as my very favorite of 2010.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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