The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - Night of the Hunter (1955) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - Night of the Hunter (1955)

Hi-def release of Charles Laughton's 1955 classic.

Directed by: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason


Now considered a classic, on its release 'Night of the Hunter' did very little business. A combination of bad marketing and an idiosyncratic approach from Laughton meant it got very little praise or accolades. An even bigger travesty is that due to its failure, Laughton was never able to get another picture made. He may only have one directing credit to his name, but what a credit it is. Now beautifully restored in a pristine blu ray transfer, it is possible to see it in the condition it so richly deserves.
The opening voiceover “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothes, for they are ravening wolves” pretty much sums up the story of the film. Mitchum’s preacher Harry Powell is a religious zealot, full of holy power but with a sideline in murdering widows and making off with their money. Found in possession of a stolen car and sentenced to thirty days in jail, he discovers his cell mate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is due to be hung. Aware that the proceeds from Ben’s robbery has not been recovered and that his wife will soon be a widow, Powell resolves to inveigle himself within the family and get his hands on the money. Unfortunately, this may prove somewhat difficult as the only two people who know where the money is being stashed are the Harper children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
It’s a simple enough story, open to any way of interpreting, from film noir to out and out horror. That Laughton chooses to show the horrors unfolding from a child’s perspective, ripe with fairytale imagery and queasy Freudian longing, is his masterstroke. He is also a consummate director of children. Always believable, never behaving like wise beyond their years adults, you get a real sense of danger when the Preacher comes a calling.
Robert Mitchum has never bettered his performance in this. He has always been a languid, reptilian presence and here his heavy lidded menace is exemplary. He may be a murderer but you never get the feeling he is a charlatan. His thoughts may be lustful (in one amazing scene in a burlesque club he sublimates his sexual desire into anger, his flick knife tearing through his pocket like sharpened erection), his actions directly against the Ten Commandments, but you never doubt his religious fervor. You feel his God is an Old Testament smiting and punishing type of deity. Exemplified in his love and hate speech, he talks love but he is all about hate.
Religion as a shackle and control runs rife throughout this film. As a widow, Willa Harper (Winters) is pretty much sent as a lamb to the slaughter to Mitchum’s Preacher, the locals insisting a widow can’t raise children on her own. The insinuation is also that Willa’s a women of voracious sexual appetites that may be becalmed by a bit of bible in her bed. Willa marries Powell and is indoctrinated into his backwoods tent revivalist preaching, her sexuality and individuality squashed by his righteousness. That he wants her doesn’t seem to be in doubt, but the manor in which he will penetrate her will most likely be brutal and finite.
You expect with Laughton's background that the performances would be strong, but the real revelation is his visual style. Whether it be the striking image of a corpse at the bottom of the river, the prolonged chase along the river (at once tense and dreamlike), his use of wipe cuts and iris effects, the chilling way  Mitchum singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is used whenever he appears, you get the strong feeling that you are watching the embryonic stages of a future master of cinema. It’s a great shame he never got to make his film version of Norman Mailers 'The Naked and the Dead'.
Lillian Gish’s performance as Miss Cooper, fairy godmother to wayward and orphaned children, may seem a little sweet and earnest but it fits perfectly with the fairytale atmosphere created. If Mitchum is the Big Bad Wolf then Gish’s Granny is going to take him out with a shotgun rather than get eaten in her bed.
A classic then, and one that should be on every lover of film's blu-ray shelf.

Extras

You get a pristine transfer of the movie in the original 1.66:1 ration. Two audio options with 5:1 dts or 2:0. There is no commentary but you do get 'Charles Laughton directs' a 2hrs 40mins look at the directing process. In truth this is going to be of minor interest to all but the most committed as it is full of endless footage of Laughton meticulously doing take after take. It's fun watching him getting irascible with the child actors and will be required viewing for anyone with an interest in the director's craft; it is not however a detailed story of the film's making and reception. There is a trailer but on my copy it brought up the documentary again, on investigation the trailer appears just after the doc has finished. The only other extra is an interview for French TV with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, which shows great insight into his craft. He also takes a great deal of the credit for the look of the film without sounding like he is stealing Laughton’s thunder.
10/10


Jason Abbey