The Criterion Collection’s recent DVD release of the cult classic The Night of the Hunter is a true gift for the film aficionado. The 1955 black and white film marks the first and only directorial appearance for famed actor Charles Laughton. Although its critical reception at the time was decidedly mixed, and its box office was not great, over the years its reputation has grown, and grown exponentially. The first of the two disc set includes a newly restored digital transfer of the film, audio commentary by critics, and some of those involved in the making of the film: an interview with Simon Callow (a Laughton biographer), archival documentaries featuring Robert Mitchum and cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, sketches by Davis Grubb (author of the source novel), and the film’s trailer. There is also a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show featuring a deleted scene from the movie.
The second disc is a true goldmine for the film buff. Under the tItle Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” it contains two and a half hours of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage edited from material recovered from the director’s wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, by film historian Robert Gitt and a conversation about the editing between Gitt and critic Leonard Maltin. The material provides an illuminating view of the directorial process and real insights into the way films are made. A booklet featuring critical essays by Terence Rafferty and Michael Scragow is also included.
The film, with a screenplay by James Agee, is set in West Virginia during the Depression. It tells the story of two young children privy to the secret hiding place of a stolen fortune pursued by an evil charlatan masquerading as a man of God. Robert Mitchum does a star turn as the murderous preacher. He exudes slimy evil as he worms his way into the good graces of the children’s widowed mother, played by Shelley Winters, and the other town folks. It is only the children who recognize him for what he is, and they are unable to convince anyone else of the truth about him. This is the nightmarish story of two children left on their own to deal with what seems like an intractable evil force.
As directed by Laughton, the film has a dark fairy tale sense of unreality that owes a good deal both to the tradition of German Expressionism and that of the silent film. Although shot in 1955 the film seems much older. At the time, according to the commentaries, Laughton spent a lot of time watching old D.W. Griffith movies, and it shows in the film. Not only does it use some of the filmic devices of the silent movie, like the keyhole effect, but it also captures much of its mythic melodrama. The stark contrasting black and white of the film parallels the stark contrast between good and evil. The intense play of sharp patterns of light and dark create an ominous vision of the world, a world where even the singing of a hymn in the darkness is a frightening threat. This is a world where religion, which should protect the innocent, has been seemingly usurped by evil doers. It is a world where those who spout God’s word are as likely to be disciples of the devil as they are of the Lord.
The cast clearly buys into the director’s vision. Mitchum’s performance as Harry Powell is over the top. He is a snake oil salesman with the gift of gab. Listen to his famous explanation of the tattoos of Love and Hate on his fingers. He is a spellbinder. Shelley Winters’ fragile sexuality turns first into a ranting fundamentalism, and then a kind of hypnotic passivity. Lillian Gish turns up as perhaps the one adult capable of understanding the evil when she sees it and then be capable of doing something about it. In the fairy tale world of the film, she functions as a kind of home spun fairy godmother.
Much of the film’s success depends on the performance of the children. John Harper is played by a ten year old veteran, Billy Chapin. Sally Jane Bruce plays his five year old sister, Pearl. The discarded footage gathered for the Charles Laughton Directs feature shows how carefully the director worked with the children to get the effects he was looking for. Take after take, he had them repeating dialogue and gestures, just as he did with the adult actors, and the care he took shows in their performances.
There is much speculation in the commentaries and discussion about the reasons for the film’s less than enthusiastic reception at the time of its first release. Producer Paul Gregory suggests that the studio didn’t give it the kind of distribution it should have because they were more concerned with promoting another Mitchum vehicle, Not As a Stranger. Some thought that many of the critics back in ’55 didn’t quite get what Laughton was doing. They felt that as a first time director, Laughton was still trying to find his way. Some thought the way the film dealt with religion may not have gone over very well with audiences. Indeed the film was banned in Memphis and received an adults only rating in Great Britain. Whatever the reason, Laughton perhaps disheartened at the reception, never directed again, and given the later acclaim for the film, that seems a great shame.