Night of the Hunter gets the Criterion Collection treatment

November 24, 2010

Charles Laughton only directed one movie in his career, but in The Night of the Hunter (1955) he managed a great one that provided Robert Mitchum with his best role.

As the Reverend Harry Powell, Mitchum divested himself of his usual blasé affect, and became a honeyed-voiced, preening psychotic who justified his serial murders of widows by ranting that “[God’s] book is full of killin’s!”

Mitchum’s character — based in part on Harry F. Powers, “the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, West Virginia,“ — is one of the most genuinely terrifying screen monsters ever and the image of his tattooed hands (“LOVE” is spelled out on the fingers of his right hand, “HATE” on the left) has become an indelible part of our collective consciousness, appropriated by songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave and referenced in popular entertainments like The Simpsons.

But not only is Mitchum’s charlatan preacher menacing, he’s also deliuriously funny, an ubalancing admixture of spooky glamor and jivey, sexy wit. Powell is the sort of con man who believes his own con, in the film’s opening scene he talks to God about his larcenous career, and thanks Him for His benefience.

Even when Powell is arrested and thrown in jail it seems a blessing to him — for in jail he encounters a condemned killer (Peter Graves) who begs him to carry a message to his wife after his execution. There’s $10,000 of stolen bank loot hidden in the house she needs to know about.

So Powell journeys to a river town where he finds the widow Willa Harper(Shelley Winters) and her two children. Powell charms his way into their lives, marries Willa. The little girl, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), adores her new father while the boy, John (Billy Chapin), is suspcious of him.

After Powell murders their mother, the innocents flee the preacher in a rowboat, and Laughton’s film takes on an allegorical, biblical heft as the tension winds tighter and tighter, with the children floating down the river at night.

Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez film them from the riverbank, interposing a series of simple, natural images — a frog, a spider web — between the camera and its quarry.

Based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb, Night of the Hunter is part baroque fairy tale and part murder ballad from the Old Weird America.

Laughton and James Agee adapted the novel into a taut script, and Laughton and Cortez infused it with an eerie gray beauty with German Expressionist shadows. Like a lot of classics, it wasn’t immediately appreciated at the time, but it’s quite possibly the most disturbing American film I’ve ever seen.

The new Criterion Collection edition of the film, was released this week. It carries a suggested retail price of $39.98 and extras include:

• A new, restored digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
• Audio commentary featuring second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones
Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage
• A New documentary featuring interviews with producer Paul Gregory, Sanders, Feeney, Jones, and author Jeffrey Couchman

1 Comment

  • Comment by bbbaldie — Nov 24,2010 at 1:16 pm

    That river scene, with the preacher silhouetted up against that cloudy sky, was creepy beyond description.

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