economy has gone to hell, but you can still afford to splurge on the
latest in High Definition treats. The CHUD Home Entertainment Team has
taken upon themselves to draft the Top 25 Blu-Rays released in Region A
thus far. From the 1st of December until Christmas, we’ll count down to
the greatest Blu-Ray release of all-time. Join us and marvel at the
treasures of the 1080p set.
LIST POSITION: #10
TITLE: The Night of the Hunter
Directors: Charles Laughton
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish and Peter Graves
RATING: Not Rated
BUY IT AT AMAZON!
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
Criterion picked up a lot of titles this year, after Studio Canal pulled their licensed titles around the second quarter. Picking off UCLA restored titles such as Stagecoach, Modern Times and Night of the Hunter was one of the many coups that showed what the True Foes are at the top of their game. Night of the Hunter was the best of the trio, as the film had quite a march from barebones MGM treatment to the double-disc Criterion dynamo. While the price point scares away a lot of potential buyers, I would hope that potential viewers would take a chance on it. Let’s examine why.
Criterion has made its bones by bringing Art House to the home entertainment world with powerhouse releases that hold their own with the mainstream studios. The company spent most of 2010, trying to keep Day and Date with their recent title pick-ups. When Criterion first tackled the film, they contacted the film’s assistant director, expert archivist Robert Gitt and superstar critic F.X. Feeney. Building from the source novel, archived interviews and related promotional material…the assembled talents had quite the uphill battle. The film had never really looked that amazing outside of film print, so how could they manage to bring that experience to the home theater?
The simple answer is that they threw everything against the wall and hoped that it stuck. There’s the basics that survived throughout the years such as outtakes, rushes and stories of about how Shelley Winters fought with the director. Where the release becomes legendary is with the live presentation from The Ed Sullivan Show. That clip was painstakingly restored from a Spring 1955 clip and brought back to life for this release. Beyond that, you have probably the best audio commentary that Criterion has produced. Taking the assembled production and scholarly talent, they spend nearly two hours breaking down the importance of Laughton’s only directing effort.
The second disc in the release will be mentioned later. It’s an amazing documentary that takes what could’ve broken down into smaller featurettes, but expands the material into a feature-length effort. While I wasn’t terribly familiar with Robert Gitt’s work before this Blu-Ray, I’m a huge fan now. Robert Harris might be the first name in restoration and archival work, but Gitt is coming up in the world. The Night of the Hunter will be seen as a watershed moment for Criterion and Gitt. This release tells the rest of the Region A studios that a smaller house can release better titles with the films they cast off. Now, let’s take a look at the film.
Preacher Harry Powell isn’t plausible. His world doesn’t make any sense, when you hold it up to the light. What does matter is the bare emotion of every scene in which this trickster appears. Having recently revisited the film with a handful of first-time viewers, it was interesting to see their response to this very genre-specific storytelling. Some related it to Grimm Fairy Tales, while others just decried it for being hokey soundstage driven 1950s theatrics. Both claims don’t hold a ton of water.
The Night of the Hunter is more than Charles Laughton’s outsider direction of a dark Southern story about life during the Depression. It’s not Americana with warm feelings about how citizens can rise above all challengers. This film is about the little things. The innocence being snuffed out of the world by predators that are always on the move to find the next easy target. Boiled down to our animal nature, humanity is shown onscreen with its basic urges exposed. When we want something, we’ll eventually take it. Morality, conscience and concern are only momentary delays in our quests for personal gain.
Still, the dark nature of the film is balanced by the childlike sense of justice. When Powell is captured both times, we never get a sense that he’s in danger. The legal system throws him behind bars for a brief amount of time, then he’s escorted somewhere else. Little John Harper becomes the viewer’s anchor throughout the film, but we’re never given any reason to trust him. Whether it is his inability to discern proper father figures or his childlike ignorance, there’s no sense of order in the film.
Little John and Pearl Harper are the heart of the film, but they’re such non-entities. You might grow close to John and his quest to protect his father’s hidden loot, but he betrays it. Pearl’s terribly young and she doesn’t quite get the danger that Powell poses to her. After the death of their mother, John takes Pearl along like a rag doll. She has little to no personality and she exists only as a reason to keep John motivated. Therefore, Laughton unearths something truly awful and it’s an idea that must’ve been revolting to audiences of that era.
You weren’t watching this film to see Good triumph over Evil. The audience was placed before this film to watch Powell crush all the small things that laid before him. Modern audiences like to bemoan the rise of torture porn and its related schlock, so I offer this film to them as an interesting touchstone for the horror base. Sure, the ending for the film stinks of studio-approved tripe. It’s just that if you can look past that crap and focus on everything but the last ten minutes of the film. I’ve heard the argument that we’re supposed to view the film from a childlike point-of-view, but I don’t buy it.
Charles Laughton only got one shot to direct a feature film and he offered up something so dark to audiences for a reason. He wanted to kill your darlings and beat your expectations. Those that would bring change to the cinema are often shat upon by the masses. That is unless your stuff their eyeholes with 3D, James Horner scores and Sandra Bullock’s latest bullshit. If there’s anything to take away from the film, it’s an appreciation for Laughton and his desire to change the face of American cinema. Anyone can die onscreen, nothing’s off the table and fuck children. They’re loud, obnoxious and they steal focus away from the lead actor.
WHY DIDN’T IT RANK HIGHER?
transfer is nothing short of amazing. One of the greatest Southern Gothic films has been brought to the HD generation with a release that will remain the definitive word on this film for a few years. What keeps it from ranking higher on the list is the film itself. While I appreciate Southern Gothic fiction, I realize that it’s not for everyone. The Night of the Hunter is one of the most underrated films of all-time, but there’s such a subtle charm to the Depression terror. Robert Mitchum trying to balance old world villainy with new world menace remains a sight to behold, as his fast tongue and wits get lost in the ADD riddled modern world.
THE BEST SUPPLEMENT
Archivist Robert Gitt is responsible for the most amazing supplement in the set that takes up almost all of the second disc. Charles Laughton Directs: The Night of The Hunter is quite possibly the greatest documentary every to be featured as a Home Video supplement. Clocking at two and a half hours in length, the documentary takes the viewer through the source material, Laughton’s push to become a director and the film’s underwhelming reception at the box office. The greatest material in this documentary has to be the stern Laughton working with the lead kid actors, as he desperately tried to find ways to make them understand what he wanted.
Mitchum be rollin’
Somebody took the Ted Kennedy Highway to Martha Moxley town.
All the ladies love cool Bob.
I had a funny quip, but I was distracted by a thought. Mitchum never changes clothes throughout this entire fucking movie. The span of time is roughly around a six month to one year period. That’s a year of not changing your clothes. Dude’s got two outfits in the whole movie and he wears the Preacher getup for most of the time. I know that it was the Depression, but wash your ass.