Night of the Hunter (Criterion Collection)

Director - Charles Laughton

Cast - Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum

Country of Origin - U.S.A.

Discs - 2

MSRP - $49.95

Distributor - Criterion

Reviewer - Scott MacDonald

The Film (5/5)

 

     I hate to admit it, but this viewing of Night of the Hunter was my first time seeing the film all the way through.  I had previously seen parts of it as part of a film history class in college, and I had read quite a bit about it for years. It just took this Blu-ray arriving on my doorstep to finally sit down and watch it all the way through.

 

     Night of the Hunter is the first, and sadly, only feature film directed by actor Charles Laughton.  Night of the Hunter is an adaptation of a Southern gothic novel by author Davis Grubb.  The book has been out of print for several years, and having no source material to compare it to, I can only say that the film version feels like a semi-surreal German Expressionistic stylized version of a William Faulkner (Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) novel.

 

     Night of the Hunter takes place during West Virginia during the Great Depression. As the story begins Ben Harper, the father of John and Pearl, is sentenced to death for stealing $10,000 from a local bank.  Before the police could nab him, he hides the money, only revealing the location to his children so that they can have a better life when they are older. While in jail waiting to be hanged, he shares a cell with Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). One night, Ben begins talking in his sleep, and accidentally reveals the fact that his children know the whereabouts of the money.

 

   Reverend Powell being a widow killer, and religious fanatic takes this as a sign from God, that the money must be his.  After Ben's execution, and Powell's release from prison he seeks out Willa (Shelly Winters), Ben's Widow, and Mother of his 2 children. He convinces her to marry him, and to live a pious life with him, all the while plotting to steal the money.  However, the oldest son John, keeping his word never reveals the location of the money. Powell eventually grows frustrated with this, and kills Willa. Powell hides the body, and then continues harassing the children for the location of the money, eventually it is revealed by daughter Pearl, but before Powell can get his hands on the money the children steal a raft, and head off down the Ohio River to escape Powell, and find sanctuary.

 

     The character of Harry Powell, may be one of the most frightening characters in the history of cinema. Every moment he is on screen he has the audience attention, and creates a very unsettled mood to the proceedings. The character in, and of itself feels like Laughton's indictment of the affect of organized religion on the psyche of certain individuals, in Powell's case he uses the word of God as an excuse for his hypocritical wrong doings (murder, theft, etc). Also, his effect on other characters such as Shelly Winter's Willa, who begins to movie as ambivalent toward religion, eventually joins Powell in helping spread his ministry.

 

     If Night of the Hunter's position on organized religion was solely based on the Powell character, than what we would have his a powerful indictment against. However, Laughton offers an interesting counterbalance in the character of Rachel Cooper played wonderfully by Lillian Gish. Rachel is a woman that has a strong sense of faith, and also has a strong moral core. This character is essentially the polar opposite of Mitchum's Harry Powell.  She is a selfless individual who takes in orphaned, and abandoned children, under her roof, and helps care for them. She reads to them from the Bible, and allows the book to help her find her own moral center.

 

   The film like the best genre films manages to tell a simple story, first and foremost, Night of the Hunter is an excellent suspense film. It is grounded by an excellent cast, that bring these characters to fully fleshed out life.  The stylish direction from director Laughton, and the set design really help to evoke a very dreamy, yet dark, fairy tale atmosphere.  That being said the film does not delve completely into the surreal, and stays grounded enough in reality to make the characters especially Harry Powell seem like an actual threat, rather than some otherworldly unstoppable killer that are seen in so many other horror films.

 

     Overall, Night of the Hunter is one of the finest genre offerings I have had the pleasure of viewing. It is a compelling film with a mix of great and memorable characters, and a simple yet effective story that will keep the audience glued to the seat for the duration. I would recommend this to fans of the horror genre, and great cinema in general. This is a film that needs to be seen.

 

Audio/Video (5/5)

 

     Criterion have created an absolutely stunning transfer for their Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter.  The film is presented in it's original 1:66:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p transfer. The grain structure is intact, and the transfer offers an excellent level of detail.  The transfer itself is quite crisp for the most part, with the exception of the grainier scenes, although these seem purely natural, and very filmlike.  The black levels are nice and deep, and the whole film while probably beautiful in all it's forms, looks especially gorgeous on this set.

 

   The only audio option is PCM 1.0 soundtrack in English. The track is completely solid.  The dialogue, music, and effects are mixed well and sound fantastic here.  There is no obvious instances of pops, hissing, or any sort of background noise.  Overall, an excellent track in keeping with the films similarly excellent transfer.

 

Extras (5/5)

 

     I have been collecting Criterion editions pretty much as long as I have been collecting DVD's, and they have always done the best possible job from A/V to extras with all of their releases.  However, out of the releases from them, I have owned, this Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter may be one of their all time finest. the first disc kicks off with an audio commentary by the films second unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F.X. Feeney, Preston Neal Jones, and film archivist Robert Gitt. It is a more intellectual discussion about the film, with some great anecdotes about the production itself, and the style of the film.  This is followed up by a 38 minute documentary called The Making of Night of the Hunter.  This is followed up by a 10 minute discussion by Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow, who discusses the impact of Night of the Hunter.

 

   The first disc is rounded off by a short 40th anniversary piece called Moving Pictures, which features interviews with Mitchum, Shelly Winters, and other members of the cash. It also features older foorage of Laughton, inter spliced with some unremastered footage, which really goes to show how truly excellent the restoration on this Blu-ray truly is. This is followed by an appearance by Shelly Winters and Peter Graves on the Ed Sullivan Show, where they act out a few deleted scenes from the film.  There is also an interview with the films DP Stanley Cortez, finally we have some of Davis Grubb's conceptual sketches, and the films theatrical trailer.  The second disc has one of the most phenomenal extras ever included on a home video release, and that is the 2.5 hour long documentary Charles Laughton Directs the Night of the Hunter.  This film is compromised entirely of out takes, and footage from the production of Night of the Hunter, and demonstrates not only Laughton at work, but much of the cast and crew.  This gives not only a greater insight to the film itself, but into the production process, and would be of particular interest to students of film, and film production. I have always said that the best Criterion DVD's were essentially films schools on a disc, and this documentary sends that point home. The final extra is simply called introduction and runs about 17 minutes. It is an interview conducted by Leonard Maltin with Robert Gitt, and the process he took to create this documentary.

 

Overall

 

     Not only is NIght of the Hunter one of the greatest thrillers of all time, it may be one of the greatest films of all time.  The Audio/Video work courtesy of Criterion is absolutely brilliant, and the extras are some of the greatest Criterion have ever included on one of their sets. This is a must buy, and comes highly recommended.