on 15 March 2015
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER  [The Criterion Collection Special Edition] [Blu-ray] [US Import] Towering Above All Others . . . But Greater Than Them All is The Impact of the Motion Picture Itself!
‘The Night of the Hunter’ incredibly, was the only film the great actor Charles Laughton ever directed and is truly a standalone masterwork. A horror movie with qualities of a Grimm fairy tale, it stars a sublimely sinister Robert Mitchum [‘Cape Fear’ and ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’] as a traveling preacher named Harry Powell (he of the tattooed knuckles), whose nefarious motives for marrying a fragile widow, played by Shelley Winters [‘A Place in the Sun’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’] are uncovered by her terrified young children. Graced by images of eerie beauty and a sneaky sense of humour, this ethereal, expressionistic American classic also featuring the contributions of actress Lillian Gish [‘Intolerance’ and ‘Duel in the Sun’] and writer James Agee, is cinema's quirkiest rendering of the battle between good and evil.
FILM FACT: The film was a collaboration of Charles Laughton and screenwriter James Agee. Charles Laughton drew on the harsh, angular look of German expressionist films of the 1920s. The film's score, composed and arranged by Walter Schumann in close association with Charles Laughton, features a combination of nostalgic and expressionistic orchestral passages. The film has two original songs by Walter Schumann, "Lullaby" (sung by Kitty White, whom Walter Schumann discovered in a nightclub) and "Pretty Fly" (originally sung by Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but later dubbed by an actress named Betty Benson). A recurring musical device involves the preacher making his presence known by singing the traditional hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Robert Mitchum also recorded the soundtrack version of the hymn.
Cast: Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Peter Graves, Shelley Winters, Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, James Gleason, Don Beddoe, Gloria Castillo, Michael Chapin and Gloria Pall
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Screenplay: Charles Laughton, James Agee and Davis Grubb (author)
Composer: Walter Schumann
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez A.S.C.
Video Resolution: 1080p [Black-and-White]
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English: 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio and English: Dolby Digital Mono Audio
Running Time: 93 minutes
Region: Region A/1
Number of discs: 2
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Andrew’s Blu-ray Review: ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a cinematic curiosity. Shot in black-and-white, the 1955 film is Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort. It starred Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, and Shelley Winters; James Agee wrote the screenplay (or is at least credited with doing so). Based on Donald Grubb's 1953 bestselling novel, it is a dark and powerful morality play. Not a great success when first released, it is now an acknowledged masterpiece.
It is a tale of good and evil, innocence and sin. The good, especially Rachel Cooper can seem too good to be true, but the evil, in the person the preacher, is as roundly, soundly evil as it gets. Good triumphs, but the damage done along the way is spectacular. The film is remarkable in a number of respects, not least of which is its acknowledgement of pure evil (and that in the guise of a man of god). Robert Mitchum's portrayal is particularly noteworthy, while Lillian Gish is also a perfect "benevolent antidote to Preacher's evil."
In his own words, director Charles Laughton described ‘The Night of the Hunter’  as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale." Based on a popular novel by David Grubb, the film takes place in West Virginia during the Depression and follows a homicidal preacher as he stalks two children, a brother and sister, across the rural landscape. The reason for his pursuit is $10,000 in cash and it's stuffed inside a doll the little girl is carrying.
Charles Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay but the famous author of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” had a severe drinking problem (he died the same year) and the screenplay he delivered was a mammoth script by Hollywood standards that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Although Agee biographer Lawrence Bergman maintained that Charles Laughton had to rewrite most of screenplay, the discovery of James Agee's first draft of the script in 2004 proved that it reflected Laughton's final release version, almost scene for scene.
The casting was also exceptional and Laughton coaxed excellent performances from Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. However, he developed an aversion to the two child actors and when he overheard the little boy, Billy Chapin, bragged about winning the New York Critics' Circle Prize for a recent play, Charles Laughton roared, "Get that child away from me." After that, the two children took their direction mostly from Robert Mitchum. The only other problem Charles Laughton encountered was having to juggle his shooting schedule so that Robert Mitchum could begin work on his next film, ‘Not as a Stranger’ .
Ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release, except by a handful of critics, ‘The Night of the Hunter’ had to wait several decades before it took its rightful place alongside other revered works of the American cinema. It was the sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton and he took the film's commercial failure very hard, abandoning any future plans to direct another film.
‘The Night of the Hunter’ is anything but a failure and is chock full of riches: Robert Mitchum creates a chilling portrait of evil in one of his finest performances (and one of his personal favourites); the rock-steady presence of Lillian Gish is both a homage and a direct link to the films of D.W. Griffith, who the film pioneer Charles Laughton pays a great tribute to this film genius. The shimmering beauty of Stanley Cortez's cinematography also recalls the shadows and lighting of other silent era classics by Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg, and the music score by Walter Schumann is unusually evocative, mixing hymns, children's songs, and orchestral effects. Unforgettably haunting images (a car submerged in a watery grave; a spider's web view of the children fleeing in a riverboat to the strains of Pretty Fly; a silhouetted angel of death) make this a perennially unsettling masterpiece from which modern chillers could learn much.
The Night of the Hunter’ is a complex film: arty, and yet as straightforwardly terrifying as any contemporary slasher film. It is a story of seductions, as well as the seduction of both evil and of good. It is a haunting film, and a memorable one. As others have pointed out, it was not an ideal debut for Charles Laughton, being too ambitious, trying too much. Audiences (and many critics) were apparently unsure of what to make of it. Though it received decent reviews, sadly it was not a commercial success. In Britain it was even rated with an ‘X’ certificate (not as far-fetched as one might think: it is definitely a film for a mature audience). Each aspect of the film’s production, from the idyllic cinematography to the incredible performances, to the contrary uses of cinematic stylisation and narrative, presents an interplay of opposing ideas through a sophisticated, haunting, and strangely buoyant whole. It endures as an enchanting American folk tale ripe with intricate melodrama and mythic symbolism, one that no film fan will ever forget.
Blu-ray Video Quality – Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and encoded with a stunning encoded 1080p transfer. Charles Laughton's ‘The Night of the Hunter’ arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a SCANTY film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MITT’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVRN system was used for small grain, dirt and noise reduction. This is a very impressive high-definition transfer.
Blu-ray Audio Quality – There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc and that is a 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio and was taken from the UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, supervised by Gitt and also by John Polito of Audio Mechanics. This restoration was painstakingly constructed from a 35mm composite master positive, a variable-density soundtrack negative of the film’s music and effects track, a projection print, and many rolls of 35mm magnetic film containing fully edited dialogue recordings. So in the end there was a great deal of work was done to make sure that the audio presentation is as good as possible, and it clearly shows. The new 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio track conveys excellent depth and stability that will undoubtedly impress those of you who own the old inferior NTSC DVD release. The dialogue is also clean and stable and I did not detect any pops, cracks, hissings, or audio dropouts.
Blu-ray Special Features and Extras: The Criterion Collection brings an amazing treasure trove of supplements for this Blu-ray edition of 'The Night of the Hunter.' Spanning two discs and mirroring its previous DVD release and most of the bonus material is being released for the first time on the home video market. For fans of this horror masterpiece, the collection is exceptional and worth the price of admission alone.
NEW and Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The First Special Features and Extras Blu-ray Disc:
Audio Commentary: Commentary Recorded in 2008 and the commentary features Second-unit Director Terry Sanders, Film Archivist Robert Gitt, Film Critic F.X. Feeney, and Preston Neal Jones: To listen to the commentary while viewing ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ press the AUDIO key on your Blu-ray remote at any time: This is a very informative commentary, in which second-unit director Terry Sanders, film archivist Robert Gitt, film critic F.X. Feeney, and Preston Neal Jones, author of “Heaven and Hell to Play With.” A great deal of the conversation is, of course, on the history of the movie, Charles Laughton's direction, but the discussion also includes several comments on the film's initial reception, it's immense influence and rise to a cinematic treasure, how each participant came to discover it and some wonderful thoughts on the film's themes. This is a terrific commentary, worth listening for those with an interest in film history and about its reception and restoration, the film's message, and Charles Laughton's fascinating life and career, etc.
Special Feature Documentary: The Making of ‘The Night of The Hunter’  [1080p] [4:3] [37:59] This documentary traces the history of ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ from Charles Laughton discovery of the Davis Grubb novel of the same title, and we also get to hear about the films poor reception in 1995 by the critics and the audience, but we also get to hear about its later ascension into the pantheon of classic films. This brilliant documentary features producer Paul Gregory, second-unit director Terry Sanders, and authors Preston Neal Jones, F.X. Feeney and Jeffrey Couchman. What we get over the period of the documentary is some really fascinating information, like Davis Grubb did some special pencil sketches of what he visualised how certain characters and scenes would appear in the film, and Charles Laughton was so bowled over, that he demanded Davis Grubb to send more drawings and Charles Laughton actually used them as the virtual storyboard. We also get to find out that the film took 35 days to shoot and came well under budget at $800,000, which is what they would spend on food and drink for the actors and crew today. The cost of getting the rights to the novel was $80,000. But the most fascinating interesting facts of the film, is that 99.9% the film was shot on the backlot of the RKO Studio. But what was sad to hear is that United Artist would not spend certain amounts of monies on publicity for the film, and the film at the time of its release was a complete flop and it made Charles Laughton totally depressed and crushed, but of course it has now become one of the Top 5 Classic Film. This is a must view documentary.
Special Feature Documentary: Simon Callow on Charles Laughton  [1080p] [16:9] [10:35] In this interview, that was shot in 2010 in London. Simon Callow, the author of “Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor” discusses Charles Laughton’s career and the effects on this lone foray into film directing it had on his life. Simon Callow gives a totally engrossing talk about Charles Laughton and definitely shows how he loved this fascinating character and gives loads of praise on the talent of Charles Laughton and feels he could of gone onto greater things, especially going onto a brilliant film director, which sadly ended with ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ This is again a must view documentary, as Simon Callow is a very charismatic person and it also shows how much he loved the film and that is why he produced his first class novel on Charles Laughton.
Special Feature Documentary: Moving Pictures  [480i] [4:3] [14:18] This just under fifteen-minute special documentary on the classic film ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is presented by Howard Schuman, which was originally broadcast in the United Kingdom on the BBC Two channel, on 19th February, 1995 and features interviews with producer Paul Gregory, actors Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lilian Gish , editor Robert Golden, art director Stanley Cortez, and second-unit director Terry Sanders.
Special Feature: Clip from The Ed Sullivan Show  [480i] [4:3] [3:51] In this short excerpt from the 25th September, 1995 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, we get to see the actors Peter Graves and Shelley Winters perform a scene not included in the film ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ here we get to see Willa Hunter visits Ben Harper in prison. Sadly the quality of the video image is really rough, as is the sound and it looks like it was recorded off someone’s home VHS video recorder.
Special Feature: Archival interview with Cinematographer Stanley Cortez A.S.C.  [480i] [4:3] [12:53] In this July 1948 interview, that was shot in Hollywood at the American Society of Cinematographers, where we get to see the Oscar® winning Stanley Cortez being interviewed by Claude Ventura and Laurence Gavron about his work on the classic film ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ and we hear his total respect for Charles Laughton the director and the way he respected all the actors and crew, and especially his Cinematographer Charles Cortez, as Charles Laughton knew he would get the best cinematography for his film with light and shade. Because it was filmed by a French Television crew, you unfortunately get French subtitles appearing on the screen.
Special feature: Gallery of Sketches by Author Davis Grubb: To navigate this sequence, press the right arrow on your Blu-ray remote to move forward the images and with the left key arrow to move backward to the previous images. To exit, your press ENTER. Here we get to see all of the pencil sketches that Davis Grubb sent to Charles Laughton, which was used as the virtual storyboard for the film. You also sometimes get to see the actual black-and-white images that relates to the pencil sketches.
Theatrical Trailer  [1080p] [1.66:1] [1:36] This is the Original British Theatrical Trailer, as you get the British Board of Film Censors logo advertising an ‘X’ Certificate Film for a ‘U’ Trailer.
The Second Special Features and Extras Blu-ray Disc:
Special Feature Introduction: In this conversation, recorded specially for The Criterion Collection in 2010, here you have film archivist Robert Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin discuss the discovery and preservation of the material used to make Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’  [1080p] [16:9] [16:58] This is a really fascinating interview and we hear lots of anecdotes on how this preservation work came to fruition. Robert Gitt had felt he had been on this project from 1959, especially after viewing the film broadcast on his television and not realising it was directed by Charles Laughton. Eventually he met Elsa Lancaster, who informed him of 18 boxes of all the rushes and outtakes of the film. Over the next 20 years Robert Gitt painstakingly edits all of the rolls of film of the rushes and outtakes to produce this special presentation that follows this interesting interview. But one big problem Robert Gitt had when everything had been edited together in 2001; he found that he had over 8 hours of film, if shown in one session. But eventually Robert Gitt had to edit the rushes and outtake down to a manageable 2 hours 39 minutes to give it a brilliant presentation, which you are about to see after this interview. What you get to view is a full 4:3 frame presentation, which gives you an insight into Charles Laughton’s frame of mind in producing this classic film.
Special feature: Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’  [1080p] [4:3] [2:39:05] Here you get to see a treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. It was “The Epic That Was” and seeing Charles Laughton in person directing all the actors is a glorious treat to view and it was a tragedy he was not allowed to direct more films, as he would have made some stunning films, as he was a true professional in his outlook towards presenting good classic films. But sadly ‘The Night of the Hunter’ was a total disaster at the time of its release and Charles Laughton was totally devastated why it was not a success or won any Academy Awards. But of course this film has now gone into the annals of a classic film, that The Criterion Collection has now produced a beautiful stunning presentation. Anyway this special presentation of the outtakes and rushes is totally fascinating and gives a much better insight into this beautiful magical classic film.
BONUS: Here we have a stunning 30 page Special illustrated booklet containing Terrence Rafferty's essay "Holy Terror" (the author teaches at Princeton University) and Michael Sragow's essay "Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee."
Finally, Despite being a box-office and critical failure during its initial theatrical release, 'The Night of the Hunter' has since become widely recognised as one of the most beautifully photographed and remarkable films in cinema history. I think it is fair to say that the wait was well worth it. Indeed, ‘The Night of the Hunter’ looks totally spectacular on Blu-ray, and the supplemental features Criterion have provided are simply outstanding. This is a true American classic, folks, which has received the type of treatment it so rightfully deserves. A special thanks to UCLA Film & Television Archive for making this release possible. Very Highly Recommended!
Andrew C. Miller – Your Ultimate No.1 Film Fan
Le Cinema Paradiso
WARE, United Kingdom