In the mid seventies my best friend and I spent Friday and Saturday nights channel surfing after midnight, looking for bad movies to apply our proto-MST wisecracks to—the more bizarre the movie, the better. Around 4 a.m. one Sunday morning we stumbled onto the middle of some weird black and white thriller. Robert Mitchum was chasing a couple of kids into a river. As they escaped in a wooden skiff Mitchum let out an ear-piercing, dinosaur-like scream. The escaped children drifted downriver through a hallucinatory monochrome environment, spider-webs and quivering rabbits looming in the foreground, the backdrop behind the flowing river a nightmare of forced perspective stagecraft. Then the little girl in the boat started singing a strange little song. What the hell WAS this?
Having missed the first half of the movie, we couldn’t get the full impact of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. But even then we knew this was not some crappy Roger Corman quickie that we could make fun of. Somehow 4 a.m. seemed the perfect time to absorb what played out like the sort of nightmare you might have as a child, with a silhouetted, unstoppable figure pursuing you through a dream landscape so hyper-real that it felt like another planet.
Years later I saw the whole movie for the first time in a little art theater in Columbus, Ohio—an immaculate print, and I was one of about four people in the audience. The Night of the Hunter was just beginning to accumulate its cult—one that had to seek out repertoire theaters and college screenings to get a look at the film in its true form, even after MGM released the film on DVD—in a watered down pan-and-scan print with no extras—in 2000. Preston Neal Jones’s excellent book Heaven and Hell To Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter presented a wealth of background on the production, and even more tantalizingly, a two and a half hour compilation of outtake footage from the production of the film assembled by Robert Gitt was screened at UCLA, offering an astonishing look into the past of Laughton directing the cast including Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. The film, with its stark high contrast cinematography by Stanley Cortez, is one of the most visually dazzling pieces of movie expressionism ever made—clearly there was great room for improvement as far as DVD presentation was concerned.
After a long delay Criterion has finally achieved that goal in the two-disc Blu-ray presentation of the film recently released. The movie looks sharper than it ever has, and a wealth of extras on the first disc includes a full-length commentary with Jones, critic F.X. Feeney, second-unit director Terry Sanders, and Gitt, as well as video interviews with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, an archival interview with a still (deservedly) full-of-himself Cortez, a gallery of sketches from author Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel the film was based on, and a new as well as an archival documentary on the making of the film.
The second disc is devoted to Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter—an astonishing time capsule that exists only because of Laughton’s unusual working methods on the film. The Night of the Hunter was Laughton’s first—and last—directing job on a film, and he used his wealth of acting and stage directing experience, keeping his camera running while he coached his actors through their performances. The outtake footage—essentially the rushes for the film—is as razor sharp as the film presentation itself, and despite the black and white look you get a remarkably vivid impression of actually being on the set during filming. Watching Mitchum flub lines (or noting, as Leonard Maltin does in an introduction with Gitt, how fully formed Mitchum’s character is in the outtakes—the only direction he seems to get from Laughton is when to stop and start), watching tot Sally Jane Bruce tease the menacing actor about his forgetfulness, and feeling the passion that Laughton clearly felt as he worked to get sophisticated performances out of the child actors—it’s exciting stuff, more than enough to sustain a running time of the footage that’s longer than the movie itself.
Like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (the subject of another recent amazing Blu-ray presentation by Criterion), The Night of the Hunter was ahead of its time. Mitchum’s evil preacher (a widow-killing “bluebeard” pursuing the film’s child protagonists for a stash of stolen money they unwittingly carry) is the prototype for every half terrifying, half mordantly funny screen psychopath of the last fifty years, and the film is full of offbeat humor and eye-popping, unforgettable visual images—as well as a thundering, magnificent (and sadly lost) score by Walter Schumann. The movie was misunderstood and unappreciated at the time of its release—a reception that devastated Laughton and prevented him from ever making another film. Even worse, the great character actor (more famous for roles like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Henry VIII before he made The Night of the Hunter) never lived long enough to see his film achieve the reputation as an American classic that it so richly deserved. The Night of the Hunter still has only penetrated the American mainstream obliquely—largely in references from films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and several of the Coen Bros. works (including their remake of True Grit). Hopefully this new presentation will expose a wider audience to this unforgettable movie. Laughton’s directorial debut easily bears comparison to Orson Welles’ debut with Citizen Kane—and in the unfortunate aftermath of The Night of the Hunter’s release, we may have lost another Orson Welles to studio and critical apathy. —Jeff Bond