Blu-ray Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Academy

BBFC Classification: 12

Director: Charles Laughton

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe

The Night of the Hunter originally came out in 1955 and was the one and only directorial credit on the CV of actor Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame/The Old Dark House), the story being that the poor critical reception that met the film at the time put Laughton off directing another one (although he did apparently have help on this film from assistant Terry Sanders and actor Robert Mitchum). A shame because The Night of the Hunter is a film that transcends the era it was made in and if Laughton were alive today he’d no doubt be grateful for the positive reviews the film has received over the last 60 years.

Self-appointed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum – Cape Fear) is sent to jail for stealing a car, and whilst inside he shares a cell with a man called Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who is awaiting the death penalty for his part in a robbery where two people died. Before he was sent down Harper hid his $10,000 loot and only told his young son John (Billy Chapin) where it was stashed, but Harper talks in his sleep and lets slip to Powell that “…a little child shall lead them”.

Upon his release Powell goes to Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters – Alfie) and woos her with the intent of marrying her so he can find out from her children where the money is hidden. Once married Powell tries to get the information from John but the sharp lad is on to the conman and does his best to stop Powell from trying to take what isn’t his.

One of cinema’s all-time great villains, Harry Powell is a man who really has no conscience and will do whatever it takes to get his hands on the Harper’s money. A well-written character he may be but it’s down to a career-best performance from Robert Mitchum that really brings Powell to life, his lazy-eyed charm and commanding authority working together to make Powell’s intensity and penchant for violence all the more horrific.

But along with Mitchum the other star of the show is Charles Laughton’s impressive direction, which takes in film noir, German expressionism, straight-up thriller and some wonderful split-focus shots that must have made an impression on a young Brian De Palma. The second half of the film is filled with some truly stunning visuals that make brilliant use of shadow and silhouette, making Powell even more of a terrifying presence by having him loom up out of the horizon or singing hymns whilst lurking in the background.

There aren’t really any negatives to throw at the film as it grabs you from the start and barely lets up until the final act when Mitchum disappears for a bit before returning for the climactic showdown. The performances from the supporting cast are all good, with veteran actress Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation) putting in the most notable aside from Mitchum. Shelley Winters does fine with what she’s given but if anything her character is a little underwritten, although that is a minor quibble considering everything else the film has going for it. Also included on the disc is a 160-minute documentary on the making of the film, archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, trailer and also included is a collector’s booklet with writings on the film by filmmaker David Thompson, so along with the restored HD presentation of the film – which looks fantastic – this edition of The Night of the Hunter is definitely an essential purchase.

The Night of the Hunter

Special Features:
Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter feature-length documentary, isolated music and effects soundtrack, archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, original theatrical trailer, reversible sleeve featuring original and new artwork by Graham Humphreys, booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and filmmaker David Thompson, extracts from the film’s original reception including a full-length archive review by Gavin Lambert, and writer and filmmaker F.X. Feeney on the contribution of screenwriter James Agee.

UK Release Date: 28th October 2013

Arrow Films – Website

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