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.