Charles Laughton's one and only foray into directing has left us with a unique and almost unclassifiable work.
Non-Christians may find the Blblical tincture - especially during the few minutes intro - just a wee bit stifling, but it does set the social tenor of the time and place. Otherwise it's a fascinating piece of cinema.
Robert Mitchum gives a truly nightmarish turn as a psychotic misogynist with Messianic delusions. He talks to God, and there are hints of a serial killing spree during his soliloquies. It's obvious he's insane. He dresses in black with a broad-brimmed hat and presents the very incarnation of wickedness.
Whist in prison, he meets an inmate facing the death-penalty and learns that this man has stolen and hidden $10,000. Upon his own release he decides to go in search - all in God's name, of course. Some of the encounters are classic cinema scarefest. The story mingles childhood innocence and wonder with ruthless villainy. The executed man has entrusted the money to his children, and we are induced to view the story almost from a child's perspective. There are so many strange and magical scenes played out against the brooding terror of Preacher Powell's influence that the movie has to be watched and watched again. Portentous, threatening cords signal his approach, when closer he can be heard singing some religious anthem. A second theme represents the children. It has a lilting, lullaby score that is once sung by the little girl.
You make of this what you will. Laughton and Mitchum created the template for every sinister lunatic and bogeyman that came after and set it within a lyrical fairly-tail about good and evil, corruption and innocence. It's a spell-binding work.
The Amazon DVD supplied is unrestored but in good order. It is B&W, has an 89min runtime, and 4:3 aspect ratio. It has a `12' viewing rate, which is certainly appropriate. Extras are minimal.
The Night of the Hunter is a curious beast. It appears to the casual viewer as a simple tale of murderous preacher discovering the whereabouts of a stolen haul of cash and a battle of wits with a boy who knows where it is hidden. In a sense this IS the plot of the film.
However there is so much more to this tale than that.
British actor Charles Laughton made only one film as director and many see this as a master class. It is a very stylised picture and some suspension of belief and an appreciation of the art form is required. Laughton has filled the movie with shadows, reflections, silhouettes and framed scenes. There is a lot here that could suggest you are looking at a painting.
Scenes do jar from location filming to set dressed stages but that is part of its appeal. There is a chapter where the two child characters float down the river and just about every wildlife critter you can think of gets a front of screen cameo. The image of the underwater discovery is another standout.
It is also a difficult film to pigeon hole. You would think that the darker elements of horror would conflict with the collection of small town caricatures and the arrival of Lillian Gish's `Foster' mother. Even a teenage romance is briefly thrown in. the scene of a line of children following Gish's character like ducks could come straight out of a 50's musical yet it compliments the scene of a dead woman found by kids at the head of the movie. It even turns into a Christmas family film at one point.
Robert Mitchum's Preacher has become an iconic picture, leaning on the fence with "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles. It's an acting tour-de-force at turns sinister, violent, melodramatic and comedic.
Shelley Winters is second billed but appears to do little more than stare into the distance. In fairness this is not her story.
stand out here is Billy Chapin as John, the boy who promised his criminal father that he would not tell anyone where the stolen money was hidden. His defiance against the Preacher keeps the movie grounded in reality. His performance is not usually intruded on by a visual effect or a stylised pose. He is(as are the children in To Kill a Mocking Bird) the storyteller here and the character we are all rooting for. It's a great performance from Chapin who has not been marred by bad child acting.
There is a Two Hour plus Documentary come behind the scenes feature. It is fascinating in watching how a film of this age was made and an insight to the life and film making style of Laughton. It's nice to hear an isolated music score as well. Not enough releases have this.
To sum up, this film is best suited to movie lovers who can appreciate how this film was made and to those who can suspend a little bit of disbelief. The story is simple and straightforward but you need to look at the film as a whole. You will be rewarded.
I'm not quite sure why I hadn't seen this film before I bought it on this newly-issued Blu-ray a few months ago as it has many of the features I like in a movie.
That it was made some 60 years ago makes it something of a ground-breaking masterpiece, especially as it precedes one of most favourite 'noir' classics from that period, the quite superb 'Touch of Evil' by Orson Welles....
So, whilst I should have seen this film many years ago my tardiness has one benefit - I can 'enjoy' (this is a 'horror' film after all !) it for the first time at it's best, courtesy of this wonderfully produced Blu-ray.
--- Before I forget, this 'Arrow' production has one specific feature I've not seen much of before - the outer paper insert of the case is reversible, so you have a choice of 'covers'.
The inner side has a reproduction of the theatrical-release poster which in some ways doesn't properly hint at what the film is about (perhaps a good thing !), but is certainly more nostalgic and relevant than the 'standard' outer cover.
I've attached photos of the inner/outer so you can see what I'm on about and perhaps increase the purchase temptation.... ---
This film was the only one directed by that British stage/screen legend Charles Laughton and it appears that it ruffled so many feathers on release (it bombed and got panned) that it is why he stopped directing - before his untimely death 7 years later; what a travesty.
It's easy to see why at the time this film would have been misunderstood/disliked/shocked - it has little of a pleasant nature in it and concentrates on the 'activities' of a ruthless ex-convict who is mad, psychopathic, murderous and cruel in equal measure. Add in some 'odd' (for the time) cinematography, forays into the almost psychedelic and elements of religious blasphemy and it must have come as no surprise that it was doomed....
As I consider most of the above to be laudable characteristics, the other main aspect of this production which makes it noteworthy is the quite marvellous performance of Robert Mitchum in the lead role of said ex-convict. One often forgets how versatile he was and his turn here must surely have been a pre-cursor for his impressive portrayal of the equally 'nasty' character Max Cady in 'Cape Fear' some 7 years later....
The Amazon 'Product Description' covers the film synopsis and disc features admirably, so I won't repeat them here. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is obviously not that lively but is very clear and I think it is definitely more 'spatial' in nature, so adding to the atmosphere for your viewing experience. I will definitely watch the copious and tempting disc extras at some point as this film deserves as much coverage as possible.
With the caveat that I've only watched it once, for the period and genre this film for me isn't quite up there with 'Touch of Evil' but it's close - more for the direction techniques of Laughton and performance of Mitchum than the story itself. This Blu-ray also doesn't provide as much on-disc 'coverage' as the recent Blu-ray issue of 'Touch of Evil' does, but what there is seems to be of sufficient quality to support the excellent presentation of the feature itself.
Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a black-hatted fire and brimstone preacher with LOVE and HATE inked into his knuckles, travels 1930's West Virginia not only spreading the word of the Lord, but killing the widows God requests him to. Sharing a prison cell, his path crosses with Ben Harper, a family man who killed two men in a robbery while attempting to provide for his wife and children. Only his son John and daughter Pearl know the secret location of the stolen $10,000. As Ben is hung for his crime, Powell is released from his short sentence and attempts to work his way into the small rural community and con the family out of the money.
Released in 1955 the film hasn't aged a day, and thanks to this glorious restoration the deep blacks and looming shadows look incredibly crisp, truly highlighting the exceptional cinematography which has more in common with the eccentricities and inventiveness of German expressionism than traditional Hollywood. An intriguing use of foreground gives scenes a real voyeuristic depth that, along with its surreal atmosphere, seduces you into Powell's sinister tale. Hinging on the killer-cum-preacher's pursuit of the money and his penetration into the grieving family's life, `The Night of the Hunter' is awash with tension and mystery that keep it driving forward - but what really makes the experience so uniquely arresting is its creeping, unnerving atmosphere. Spiked with pure blackness it is still powerfully able to shock, delving into surprisingly nightmarish areas that seem at odds with the film's idealised Deep South aesthetic.
Steeped in religious iconography and parable it's a timeless story of the powers of good and evil - as the preacher's tattoos attest - and it paints both sides with the heaviest of strokes. Powell couldn't possibly be more sinister, and the angelic John is so thoroughly pure of heart in the face of this overwhelming devilish force that our sympathies with him are unbreakable from the moment he bids farewell to his father. Rightfully so `The Night of the Hunter' is mainly remembered for the astounding performance by Robert Mitchum, a terrifying screen presence burning with Old Testament psychosis, even more unnerving for the kindly public face behind which it is concealed - an instantly iconic role that ranks among the most ominous of screen villains.
Awash with chocolate box Southern beauty and lyrical biblical verse, this is an intelligent, accomplished film - although sadly the only one Charles Laughton ever directed. Within its suspense it contains something of the contrivance of religion - good intentions and moral fortitude sitting alongside the judgement and hate they can fuel. Containing several striking scenes and unforgettable imagery `The Night of The Hunter' is a remarkable piece of work positioned curiously between white picket fenced golden age Hollywood sentimentality and a place far more threatening. Genuinely timeless, with layers of beauty and psychological unease this is truly a special film, an unexpectedly black Southern saga of the highest order.
The preacher, a man of charm, conviction and commanding fire, a family loving man who arrives in a quiet troubled town. There's one problem though, he's completely crazy...The story is a tale of puritanal fever and religious charlatans v true love. Two young children are hunted and pursued across a dream like haunting landscape. The children come off at times as unrealistically adult and rational but this is a small nick pick. The film has a great soundtrack and sound design, the black and white cinematography and the depression era costumes also give it a hardened feel. Biblical stories are told throughout the film, the one of King Herold and his massacre of the innocents is a fitting one for this film's plot. Much of the imagery pays homage to German expressionism and some of the most powerful scenes in the film contain little dialogue.