With its two-disc Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter, The Criterion Collection once again lives up to its name, presenting a classic film in a flawless package. The sheer volume of information that can be gleaned by digesting this release is fairly staggering. In fact, many first-time viewers of Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort may be overwhelmed by the wealth of supplemental material. Thankfully, The Night of the Hunter is a richly involving experience that rewards repeat viewings, justifying the elaborate roster of extras.
Based on a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter is, in a very basic sense, about good versus evil. More or less a horror film, the story follows a pair of pre-adolescent siblings on the run from a maniacal killer. Prior to being arrested and hauled off to jail, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) informs his young son John (Billy Chapin) of the whereabouts of $10,000 he has stolen. Ben is kind of a Robin Hood figure in this Depression-era story, believing an armed bank robbery could benefit many people in need. Ben also makes John promise to protect his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
While in jail, Ben meets the homicidal preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). When Ben talks in his sleep, the preacher manages to figure out that his children likely know the location of the stolen cash. Upon his release, Powell sets out to infiltrate the Harper household and find the money.
By now, Ben has been executed for his crimes, leaving his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) a widow. Powell preys upon the grief-stricken Willa, convincing her to marry him. Young John knows what Powell is really after, and he escapes with his sister. Powell pursues them relentlessly.
While the plot is simple, the slightly surreal storytelling makes the film seem ahead of its time. The palpable creepiness of the atmosphere sets the film apart from the era in which it was made. The performances distinguish the film as well, especially the monumentally frightening performance of Robert Mitchum. He paints a portrait of pure evil with his performance as Harry Powell. Billy Chapin is also excellent as John. Effective child actors are always hard to come by, but Chapin delivers a realistic, self-assured performance of a boy forced to deal with some very adult situations.
Laughton never directed again, deeply depressed by the commercial and critical failure of this film. Clearly he invested considerable personal vision in the project. His stylized fairy tale, cemented by Lillian Gish’s turn late in the film as a kind of godmother to lost children, found its audience years later. It’s a one-of-a-kind film, made all the more essential by The Criterion Collection’s restoration.
Criterion’s team has done a truly commendable job in presenting The Night of the Hunter in 1080p high definition. Framed at its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the black & white cinematography of Stanley Cortez is crisp and detailed. Digitally transferred from the original 35 mm camera negative, the resulting picture is free of visual artifacts. Though the booklet notes that some noise reduction was applied during the transfer, an appropriate amount of natural grain is visible. It’s hard to imagine the film looking any better.
Similarly exhaustive work was invested in presenting the uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The booklet offers details regarding the various sources of audio utilized for the restoration. The end result is a nearly crystal-clear mix with well-balanced dialogue, music, and effects. The dialogue is intelligible, never overwhelmed by other audio elements. Walter Shumann’s score rings out clearly. Compared to today’s surround sound extravaganzas, The Night of the Hunter offers a very modest soundscape. Luckily Criterion has made sure it is free of problems.
The supplements included on disc one would be enough to qualify this as a special edition. The audio commentary features the film’s second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F.X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones (who wrote a book about the film, Heaven & Hell To Play With). These folks know the film inside and out, but rather than taking a scholarly approach they keep the tone conversational. A newly produced ‘making of’ featurette runs just under forty minutes, featuring interviews with some of the commentary participants as well as others (including The Night of the Hunter producer Paul Gregory). It’s a well produced and informative piece that mostly avoids rehashing information from the commentary.
A number of shorter features round out the disc. There’s a fifteen minute episode of the BBC program Moving Pictures made in 1995, worth watching especially for the interview clips with Robert Mitchum. Additional interviews are included, one with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, the other with Laughton biographer Simon Callow. A brief segment from The Ed Sullivan Show features Peter Graves and Shelley Winters performing a scene deleted from the finished film. It’s a very cool piece, sort of an alternative to today’s deleted scenes. The film’s original theatrical trailer is present as well.
Disc two is where things get even more interesting, with nearly three hours of additional material. Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” is a two hour and thirty-nine minute documentary produced by film archivist Robert Gitt. Boiled down from some eight hours of footage, Charles Laughton Directs… offers a uniquely intimate look at the making of the film. In an “introduction” that runs nearly twenty minutes, film critic Leonard Maltin discusses the documentary with Gitt. All of the dailies, trims, and outtake material had been saved by Laughton’s widow, actress Elsa Lanchester. Tired of storing boxes upon boxes of film, she shipped it all to the AFI Film School so that it might help as a teaching aid.
It was discovered that this footage was being used as leader and filler material for the editing of student projects. Gitt acquired all the material, rescuing it from being wasted in such a manner. Over the next twenty years, he slowly assembled the footage – all 80,000 feet of it – with the help of UCLA staff and students. Eventually whittling down the material to the length it’s presented here, the documentary offers an astoundingly comprehensive look at the making of Laughton’s film. There is narration by Gitt from time to time to provide context to what we’re watching. Otherwise what we see are alternate takes (often in unbroken succession as the camera continues to roll), deleted scenes, and actors flubbing lines. We hear Laughton directing his actors, allowing us to appreciate what a hands-on director he was.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Night of the Hunter goes above and beyond presenting a classic film in pristine form. After absorbing the entirety of this mammoth package (I haven’t even mentioned the excellent essays included in the booklet), it’s doubtful anyone will be left unsatisfied.