Charles Laughton cemented his place in film history with performances in Mutiny in the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). His sole directorial effort Night of the Hunter (1955) wasn't met with quite the same enthusiam as his acting. However, critical opinion has swung favorably in his direction and this powerful expressionistic black-and-white thriller is now considered to be a classic. MGM released the film on DVD and VHS way back in 2000, but The Criterion Collection has swooped in with a hot new restoration on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Night of the Hunter takes place in West Virginia in the 1930s. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is on the run from the cops. He knows he is doomed so he quickly heads home to his family. He tells his son John (Billy Chapin) a secret and makes him promise to never reveal it. While on death row, Ben crosses paths with Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell is a crooked preacher who knows Ben Harper is hiding something. Once Powell gets out of jail, he makes a direct line for Ben's family so he can seduce his widow Willa (Shelly Winter) and pry the secret of his son John and his daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
Night of the Hunter, which is based on the novel by David Grubb, is one of those clever, sneaky films that seems to be working an expected formula, but turns into something deeper and more powerful as it goes along. The plot is easy to spoil -- the description in this review leaves out many details --, but Night of the Hunter is like a Southern Gothic fairy tale that replaces mythical monsters with far more real and menacing threat: a murderous preacher who uses the bible to justify his immoral deeds. The film casts an skeptical eye towards organized religion. The moral hypocrisy of the church is embodied in Harry Powell, who uses the Christian bible to justify his transgressions. Powell's evil nature is contrasted with the pure innocence of the kids whose lives are threatened by a situation that they didn't create.
The look of the film is highly stylized, combining the foreboding atmosphere of noir with a shadowy nightmarish quality that in some ways recalls German Expressionism. Night of The Hunter features some of the mesmerizing high-contrast black-and-white cinemaphotography imaginable. This is no exaggeration.
All the performances are great, especially the child actors, but Robert Mitchum just steamrolls his way through this movie. One gets the strong sense that Martin Scorsese used aspects of this this character for his remake of Cape Fear. Here, Mitchum cuts a menacing figure with a dark suit with a Colonel Sanders string tie. He sports faux tattoos of the words "love" and "hate" on his knuckles. He spouts bible verses while fondling a switchblade. The performance is way over-the-top. It fits perfectly.
Criterion's Blu-Ray, which originates from a new 2K transfer, is in a1.66:1 aspect ratio. The disc runs at an ultra-high bitrate of 35mbps. The image is clear and crisp, but natural-looking with a fine grain mist. The transfer is so good that it highlights some of the budget limitations -- much of the film was shot on a studio lot -- in way that wouldn't be so prominent in standard-def. Neverthless, these issues don't detract from the film's inherent beauty. The English language audio is uncompressed mono.
The Blu-Ray release is spread across two discs. The first disc contains the feature and a whole lot of extras, including: an new audio commentary; a new documentary; an interview with Simon Callow, a performance of a scene from the film that was taped for The Ed Sullivan Show; a short archival documentary; an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez; and the original trailer. The second disc contains 2.5 hours of outtakes and footage as well as a conversation between Leonard Maltin and archivist Robert Gitt.
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