Often times, we think back to our childhood horror memories with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as we remember our first viewings of staples like A Nightmare On Elm Street orHalloween. But, it’s those few odd ducks- ones that aren’t as mainstream – that really define our palate, and honestly, what would you rather talk about: Michael Myers, or how awesome you remember Chopping Mall being? Night Of The Hunter, while an all-time classic, is one of the more obscure films I picked up on when I was little, all thanks to – believe it or not – a book on horror movies that was at my elementary school’s library. Of course, watching the film at the tender age of ten (also procured from the same library), I had no grasp of the lyrical nature that occupied every frame of acclaimed actor Charles Laughton’s only turn in the director’s chair, nor did I have any idea how much of an influence D.W. Griffith had on the film, let alone who he was. The reason the it did stick with me, whether I realized it at the time or not, was that it’s a southern gothic horror film made from the childrens’ perspective and, in turn, makes it much more identifiable and terrifying to a kid; namely, me. Fifteen years later, it appeals to me on a different level, and that’s really the strength of the film; your perspective and appreciation of it changes with age, something many directors wish their feature could accomplish.
Almost as much childhood fable as it is horror, Night Of The Hunter tells the story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a preacher who sinisterly acts on behalf of God, doling out virtue and justice with H-A-T-E and L-O-V-E written on each knuckle. After showing a showgirl the error of her ways, he becomes cellmates with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who has stolen $10,000 and hid it somewhere that only his children know about. After Harper’s death sentence is carried out, Powell marries his widow Willa (Shelley Winters), intent on finding the hidden loot. Although John (Billy Chapin) sees through the preacher’s façade almost immediately, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) eventually overlooks her need for a father figure and realizes the error of her ways. Unfortunately for their mother (and for the rest of the town), it’s too late; they’ve fallen under preacher’s pious spell, and Willa ends up sleeping with the fishes. Barely escaping his grasp, the children head down river on a rowboat, eventually taking up with a guardian angel of sorts, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who is a foster mother to many.
Powell’s introduction to the children, which has him standing outside their house beside a lamp post, his hat’s shadow obscuring most of his face, is a frightening image, no doubt influencing the reveal of a Mr. Kruger in Tina’s dream some thirty years later, and, in fact, his entire persona. As the children float downriver, Stanley Cortez’s cinematography reveals a world that is out of proportion. Since it is seen from their perspective, animals are kept in the forefront of the shots, giving them a much larger size than John and Pearl. As they wake from an overnight stay in a barn, they awake to Powell’s silhouette in the distant sunrise, with John remarking, “Does he ever sleep?” Preacher’s character, much like pure evil, is ever present; he never sleeps, and never gives his victims a break, stopping only once he has accomplished his goal. He is, as many people have said over the years, a horrific version of Mother Goose.
This isn’t the first time Criterion has released Night Of The Hunter; while they were still releasing laserdiscs, the film carried a number twenty-eight on its spine. MGM’s DVD was sadly lacking, with no bonus features besides for the trailer, and a disappointing video and audio encode. Like Criterion’s laserdisc, it had a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is a shade different from the 1:66:1 one shown during its theatrical run. Luckily, Criterion’s presents the film with an all-new audio and video presentation in its original aspect ratio. The 2K digital transfer is beyond gorgeous, with excellent shadow contrasting – a “must” considering the film is nothing but – and grain is preserved with no noticeable DNR. The only problem is that during certain scenes (most notably, the aerial shot in the beginning of the film establishing the town), the difference in prints is extremely evident. Although UCLA created and supervised this transfer in 2001 with the most painstaking of efforts, it’s obvious that they compiled it from several different copies of the movie, some of which were not in as great of shape as others. The uncompressed mono soundtrack was taken from the same restoration, which was built from a 35 mm composite master positive and digitized at 96 kHz, 24-bit. Dialogue and sound effects are crisp and clear, while never overpowering Walter Schumann’s score. Aside from some minor hissing, it’s as close to perfect as you can get. Criterion has loaded the disc with its usual bevy of extras, complete with a twenty-eight page booklet with essays from Terrence Rafferty (Holy Terror) and Michael Sragow (Downriver And Heavenward With James Agee).
Adapted from David Grubb’s novel by critic James Agee (The African Queen), Laughton’s directorial debut and swan song about religion and the eternal battle of good versus evil is nothing short of a masterpiece. Whether dwelling on the silent film era inspired cinematography, basking in career defining performance by Mitchum and Winters, seeing child actors actually ACT, or getting lost in the southern charms of Walter Schumann’s score, Night Of The Hunter is truly a film that can be appreciated by everyone.
Commentary – Recorded in 2008, this commentary features film critic F.X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, second-unit director Terry Sanders, and author Preston Neal Jones (Heaven And Hell To Play With: The Filming Of “Night Of The Hunter”) in a round table discussion about the film, which they are extremely passionate about. Keeping the track lively by fielding discussion questions (both technical and trivia-based) to each other for the majority of its running time, they also look back on their first viewing of the film, and cover topics such as how the critical reaction to Laughton’s masterpiece has changed over time, the difference between the reality of the film’s situation and how the children perceive them, the themes and motifs, and what actors were up for which parts initially. If anything, it’ll leave you wondering what Laurence Olivier and Gary Cooper would’ve been like as Harry Powell.
The Making Of “The Night Of The Hunter” (37:59) – Featuring the four men on the commentary track, in addition to producer Paul Gregory and author Jeffrey Couchman (The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film) among others, the enthusiasts discuss the genesis – starting with the acquisition of David Grubb’s novel – and production of the film. Fans of D.W. Griffith should be pleased, as he’s discussed quite a bit since he was a key influence of the film’s visual presentation.
Simon Callow On Charles Laughton (10:35) – A new interview with Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor author Simon Callow, who discusses Laughton’s entire career, how Night Of The Hunter fits into it, and where his life went after his lone trip to the director’s chair.
Moving Pictures (14:18) – An episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures, which played before Night Of The Hunter‘s 1995 broadcast. Serving as a brief introduction to the film and its key cast and crew members, the short documentary features interviews with Winters, Robert Mitchum, and Lillian Gish, as well as editor Robert Golden and many others. Though everyone reminisces about their experiences on the film, a big chunk of it focuses on their interactions with Laughton and his methods on-set.
The Ed Sullivan Show (03:52) – A clip from the show’s September 25th, 1955 episode, where Winters and Peter Graves perform a scene live, complete with a jail set, that never made it into the final film.
Stanley Cortez (12:54) – A profile piece on cinematographer Stanley Cortez that talks about his work on Night Of The Hunter and his relationship with Laughton. It’s a fine fluff piece, though I wish it would’ve focused on his contributions to the history of cinema overall; after all, he served as D.P. on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, as well as films by other legendary directors like Samuel Fuller and Fritz Lang.
Davis Grubb Sketches – A gallery of drawings by David Grubb, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. They range from character sketches to storyboards, which were used by Laughton as such for certain scenes as is evident by the screenshot comparisons provided.
Introduction (16:59) – Film archivist Robert Gitt, whose fondness for the film is unmatched, discusses his feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs “The Night Of The Hunter” with famed critic Leonard Maltin. The footage, left in Laughton’s widow’s possession after he passed, was edited down from over eight hours to its current state, which premiered at the 2002 New York Film Festival and has been kept in the UCLA archive ever since, being shown only periodically.
Charles Laughton Directs “The Night Of The Hunter” (02:39:05) – Gitt’s assemblage of footage is a treasure trove of outtakes, thought to be long lost. The bulk of the documentary consists of Laughton directing off-camera, making way for lots of outtakes and raw footage. His relationship with Winters (which was rumored to be a troubled one) is explored through outtakes and rehearsals, and his approach to coaching the children is somewhat troubling (footage shows Laughton hitting Billy Chaplin in the stomach to make his anguish look that much more convincing). This is, without a doubt, one of the finest supplementals Criterion has ever released.