The Night of the Hunter was released in 1955 and was directed by Charles Laughton. It was released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 16, 2010 as spine #541. It is the only film directed by Laughton in the collection, and in fact the only film he ever directed, but he starred in Spartacus (spine #105), Hobson’s Choice (spine #461), and Island of Lost Souls (spine #586), as well as The Private Life of Henry VIII and Rembrandt, which are included in Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives.
While in prison for stealing a car, serial killer and preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) tries to convince his cellmate — a convicted bank robber and murderer — to tell him where he hid his money. Before the cellmate is executed, Powell figures out that the man’s children know where the money is. Once released, Powell tracks down the man’s widow (Shelley Winters) and marries her, all in an attempt to win the trust of her children and learn the location of the cash. But the kids know something is wrong with Powell, and a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse begins.
The Night of the Hunter is one of those films that you’re aware of due to pop culture osmosis even if you’ve never heard of it. Have you ever seen a character in a TV show or a movie who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on their knuckles? That’s a reference to Harry Powell. It’s a reference so ubiquitous that one would think its source to be equally popular, but Night of the Hunter is shockingly under-seen. For those who know of it, its status as one of the greatest films ever made is taken for granted, but it isn’t widely accepted into conversations with Citizen Kane or The Godfather, even though it really should be.
There’s a positive consequence of that, though; watching Night of the Hunter for the first time is a much more effective experience if you don’t know what you’re getting into. Its cinematography is the best example of this. There are several shots in this film that made my jaw drop, and I may not have had that reaction if I had seen them out of context beforehand. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez takes inspiration from German Expressionism and distinctly pits light against dark, mirroring the film’s thematic battle between good and evil. Some of his compositions are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, the standout being a disturbingly beautiful shot of a corpse underwater that I won’t spoil here.
If the film is remembered for anything (besides those knuckle tattoos) it’s Mitchum’s performance as the murderous, misogynist preacher Harry Powell. He mixes veiled menace with bizarrely broad, naked emotion. There are points in the film where Powell turns into a cartoon character, slipping on bottles, getting his fingers caught in a door, chasing after children with his arms outstretched like a zombie. This comes from Laughton’s direction, of course, but Mitchum maintains the character’s threatening presence even in those more buffoonish moments.
There’s much more to be said about Night of the Hunter — about its simple yet powerful “good vs. evil” narrative, its shockingly progressive gender politics, its almost metaphysical rendering of a child’s perspective on evil — but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet, and anyone who has knows what I’m talking about. Watch it, and then tell everyone you know to watch it too. If everyone does, we can make Night of the Hunter the American classic that it’s always deserved to be.
This release has so many extra features that they had to include a second disc, even on the Blu-Ray edition. There are too many odds and ends to list here, so I’ll just mention the best inclusions. Most of Disc 2 is taken up by Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”, which is two hours and forty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the film’s production. It’s essentially an entire second film, and it’s a full hour longer than The Night of the Hunter itself. Even for a Criterion release, this is insanely comprehensive. There are a ton of interesting details about every aspect of the film’s making, but my favorite is a quote from Laughton where he decries the behavior of movie audiences who slouch and eat candy or popcorn. Laughton hoped that The Night of the Hunter would “make people sit up straight.”
The first disc has a ton of great supplements. The first is a documentary with a wide variety of speakers, including Terry Sanders and Paul Gregory, a second-unit director and a producer on the film respectively. It’s about forty minutes long, and it mixes analysis of the film’s power with reminiscences of the film’s production. There’s also an interview with Simon Callow, who wrote a biography on Laughton, where he talks about his fascinating life and illustrious career. Finally, my personal favorite feature, a clip from a 1955 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. In it, two of the film’s actors perform a deleted scene from the film live on stage. The scene itself is nothing special — it’s compelling, and you can see why it made for good promotional material, but it offers little more than redundant character information. What’s really interesting about it is the idea that they actually used to do this on late-night talk shows. It’s something that seems unimaginable today, if only because bringing actual clips from the film requires much less effort. It’s one of those small, cool things that only Criterion would think was worth including. And again, there are plenty more features that I don’t have room to mention here.
The Night of the Hunter is an under-seen classic. Its jaw-dropping images, brilliant screenplay, and masterful performances from Mitchum and Gish make it essential viewing. Criterion’s release would be a must-buy for the film alone, but its plethora of special features should shoot it to the top of your list during Barnes and Noble’s 50%-off sale.
Film Grade: A+
Criterion Grade: A+