Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection) (1955)

The Night of the HunterThere are images in Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's only film as a director, that will sear themselves into your brain and haunt you the rest of your life. That's not hyperbole; this film is simply that potent.

Nothing about Night of the Hunter is "realistic" or even plausible not the plot, not the dialogue, not the behavior of the child characters, not the photography. Yet, Night of the Hunter transcends realism utterly to do something far more challenging than merely create a simulacrum of reality. It creates a waking dream a vivid hallucination of fearsome beasts, tragic heroines, children in peril, and ultimate redemption. It succeeds as a modern fairy tale in the darkest tradition of the brothers Grimm. Even comparisons to German expressionist cinema of the silent era (apt though they are) diminish the singular, elemental power of this film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are stunning, but it's hard to imagine either of them getting under the skin in quite the same way.

The plot centers on the evil machinations of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a murderous, psychotic "preacher" who does time with bank-robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves), father of two young children (Billy Chapin brother of Father Knows Best star Lauren, and Sally Jane Bruce). Before being taken away by the police, Harper hid the money he stole and swore his children to secrecy about its location. No one else not even their mother Willa (wonderfully played by Shelley Winters) knows where the money is hidden. But after Ben Harper is hanged for the murder of two bank guards killed during the robbery, Harry Powell makes it his business to find out. Thus begins a cinematic odyssey like no other, filled with stark symbolism and eerie imagery.

Perhaps the most unsettling image is the celebrated shot of Willa's corpse in the river, strapped into a car, her hair billowing out in the water like the aquatic plants that surround her. It is one of the strongest images in all cinema comparable to the baby carriage racing down the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin, or the eyeglasses landing on the snow-covered battlefield of Dr. Zhivago.

The central sequence is a boat journey that the children take down-river in an attempt to escape the evil preacher. Though obviously filmed on a sound stage and filled with incongruous and frankly theatrical moments, the overall effect is nearly overwhelming in the way it evokes childhood fears of abandonment and pursuit. Every time I see it, I fall completely under its spell.

Stanley Cortez's breathtaking black-and-white cinematography is complemented by Walter Schumann's atmospheric score. There is a moment during the river journey when Pearl (the little girl) begins singing a children's lullaby. The orchestra swells and turns the song into a dreamy, meditative piece of night music filled with dread, sadness, and awe. It's not at all realistic, but if that scene doesn't give you chills, then you're just made of stone.

It is fitting that Lillian Gish plays the children's savior, the elderly Mrs. Cooper a righteous woman with a steely constitution. Gish was there for the birth of cinema itself. Her presence in Night of the Hunter is like seal of approval, a testimony to this film's enduring status as a classic.

My only reservation with this otherwise superb DVD is the warning at the beginning that "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV". Either that's flatly untrue (as Night of the Hunter looks perfectly at home in 4:3), or MGM has cheated us by not giving a true American classic its due.

The best kind of horror comes not from monsters or ghosts, but from other human beings. "Cape Fear," "Heavenly Creatures," and other such movies are brilliant examples of this.

But one of the most compelling examples is "Night of the Hunter," a haunting movie that slowly descends into an exquisitely-filmed, brilliantly-acted nightmare about a malign preacher and the two children who are trying to escape. Like an old fairy tale, it's full of terror, magic, beauty and darkness.

Murderous preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is arrested for car theft, since the police don't know that his hatred of women has led him to repeated murder. He shares a prison cell with bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stole ten thousand dollars. Powell tries to coax the location of the money from Harper, but the thief takes it to his grave. Only his son John (Billy Chapin) knows its location.

Upon his release, Powell arrives in Harper's town, claiming that he wants to "bring this small comfort to [Ben's] loved ones." Everyone is taken in by him, including his new wife -Ben's gullible widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). When she vanishes, John and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) must escape their evil stepfather -even though he's determined to hunt them down and find the money.

When it was first released, "Night of the Hunter" flopped completely. Not very surprising -the 1950s audiences weren't ready for the unconventional villains, rich symbolism, or the fact that an actor had dared to stray into a director's chair. Fortunately, it lived on as a cult film, and is now regarded as a classic.

It's especially sad that Laughton never directed again, because this is simply astonishing. It feels like a fairy tale, with Powell as the wicked witch, and the children as the protected innocents who are helped by a "fairy godmother." Laughton also loads it down with sexual and religious symbolism -the LOVE and HATE tattoos, the switchblade, the eerie sacrifice scene.

Best of all is the cinematography. Beauty and horror are inextricably tied together: the dead Willa with "her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water," or the little river animals watching the children escape under a starlit sky. But there are also moments of pure terror, such as the preacher's shadow falling over the kids, or calling out as they're hiding, "I'm out of patience, children. I'm coming to find you now..."

Robert Mitchum played another evil stalker several years later in the superb "Cape Fear," but this performance is even better. His Powell is a seething mass of murderous fervour and sexual hatred -his intense eyes are enough to give you goosebumps. He's also backed by some excellent performances -Chapin is amazing as the little boy determined to obey his father and somehow stop Powell. Bruce and Winters turn in some solid performances, and veteran Lillian Gish has a good supporting role as the kindly Rachel.

And at long last, this movie is getting the Criterion treatment! It's getting a cleaned-up, high-def digital transfer, audio commentary with the assistant director and some film experts, interviews with a Charles Laughton expert and the cinematographer, a trailer, a movie-length collection of archival material, a documentary with the producer and some other experts, sketches by Davis Grubb, and TV episodes centering on the movie. Plus, y'know, the required essay booklet.

As chilling and compelling as when it was first released, "Night of the Hunter" is a vibrant, primal experience, and nobody has quite come close to what it portrays.

Buy The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection) (1955) Now

From the novel by Davis Grubb the first and only film directed and purportedly written by the flamboyant and swashbucking actor, Charles Laughton. In Robert Mitchum's biography, he stated that Laughton found the script by James Agee (co-writer of the African Queen) totally unacceptable. Laughton paid off Agee, sent him packing and rewrote virtually the entire script himself, uncredited.

This 1955 melodrama cum Grimm's Fairy Tale is brilliantly directed, acted, scored and the cinematography by Stanley Cortez is breathtakingly creepy and beautiful all at the same time.

Mitchum plays the sexually repressed, thieving, lying, cheating and quite sociopathic Rev. Harry Powell. The ol' Rev. got caught in a stolen vehicle while watching a "hootchie cootchie" dancer in a burlesque establishment and is sentenced to 30 days in the state penitentiary. It just so happens as fate takes a turn that the scheming Rev's bunkmate is in the clink for killing two men and robbing a bank of over $10,000.00 that has never been recovered.

The Rev. tries to get the "sinner" to tell him where the money is hidden but the man won't budge. The man is hanged for his crime, the Rev. is let out of jail and goes to find the man's wife, played by Shelley Winters, his two young children and , of course, the loot! The Rev. even marries the young widow to get to the money and many evils ensue... Lillian Gish turns in a wonderful performance as a benefactor of the children.

I don't want to spoil the premise of the movie as other reviewers have done. Just know that it's a horror/fairytale/melodrama/satire all rolled into a great piece of filmaking!

If you liked Mitchum in "Cape Fear" you will love him as the sociopathic Rev. Powell!

Happy Watching!

Read Best Reviews of The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection) (1955) Here

Charles Laughton unfortunately only directed one film, but what a brilliant one it turned out to be! A gothic film-noir classic infused with a wicked sense of understated black humor.

The storyline is quite simple; centered around the quest for the loot of a bank-robbery gone wrong, but the real high-point of this film is Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum's portrayal of a sexually frustrated, sadistic, murderous conman, that tries to uncover the whereabouts of 10.000 $ by presenting himself as a god-fearing preacher-man, is one of the most sinister and menacing displays of criminally insane, psychopatic behaviour ever captured on film.

Laughton's direction and Stanley Cortez's cinematography, especially in the underwater, where the dead body of Shelly Winters is found strapped to her car, and in the nightmare-ish, dream-like sequense, where Mitchum stalks the river-bound children, creates scenes that has forever etched themselves in my "movie-memory".

Laughton's directing-style seem influenced by german expressionists as Fritz Lang or Walter Ruttmann with his highly stylized use of film-techniques to underline Mitchum's darkened mental state and the general disturbed "feel" of this truly frightening film.

Want The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection) (1955) Discount?

Update (12/25/10): I just got this on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray version. Yowsa! I've long loved this movie, but the degree of improvement in the new Blu-ray is absolutely shocking. Yes, there are a host of special features, a great commentary track, and a fascinating disc of Laughton directing, the real appeal of this new version is the print. The movie looks so good it is shocking. I'd see this a couple of times in student film societies, owned it on VHS, and had seen it once on television, but I was completely unprepared for how beautiful it was going to look on this new Blu-ray. One of the more recent reviewers complained of the price. Well, yeah. It is expensive, but you get what you pay for. If you want a cheap, second rate copy of the movie, get the old DVD that you can get for just over $10. But the Criterion edition, currently at $44, is worth every penny. I really wish that Amazon would not link old reviews to Criterion editions. The difference between a regular DVD or Blu-ray release and a Criterion is so different that they are two different animals. This release is Criterion at its best.

What follows is my original review:

First, for those complaining that this DVD was not released in wide screen, I have to point out that this film was originally released as a 35MM print. In other words, there never will be a wide screen edition. People need to remember that not all films were released in 70MM format. Since the 1950s, virtually every film is 70MM, but in the 1950s, many were still being produced with the smaller ratio. You will also never get a "wide screen" edition of CASABLANCA or SEVEN SAMURAI or THE WIZARD OF OZ and for the same reason.

This is without question one of the most improbable films ever made, and one of the most extraordinary. As many have noted, it owes its style to the German Expressionism that we normally associate with the 1920s and early 1930s. In that regard, it is film that looks and feels like no other film made in its time. Furthermore, it is the only film that Charles Laughton, one of the few superstar character actors in film history, directed. German Expressionism also was instrumental in creating film noir in Hollywood, and as in film noir, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is dominated by shadows. But at the same time, it doesn't look like any other film noir that one can think of. The artificial night skies and stars are unique in American cinema.

But the film is not only unique in the way it looks. The detached, almost aloof manner in which the characters interact with one another is quite unlike anything else that was being done in 1955. For instance, Lillian Gish's character is willing to kill Robert Mitchum's character, but she is willing to sing hymns with him, and, in fact, seems to actually like him in many ways, though perhaps the way that a person might feel about a beautiful though poisonous snake. The detached attitude of some of the characters underscores a sense of fate in the film, a feeling that we are not always in control of our actions or masters of our destiny. Certainly that notion is reinforced in the famous and shocking sermon that Mitchum delivers, in which love and hate seem to be powers that possess the will of an individual, with the individual an observer and not an actor in his own life.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER has some of the most amazing characters one will ever encounter. Rev. Harry Powell is almost without debate the greatest role of Robert Mitchum's career. Even those who have never seen the film know of the device of having "Love" tattooed across the fingers of one hand and "Hate" upon the other. And Mitchum's sermon about "Love" and "Hate" contesting with one another is taken over almost word for word in Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING. Lillian Gish had been, of course, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, and while she appeared in a number of films in the talking era, this is probably her greatest role after the onset of sound. The conflict between her and Mitchum are, to me, the highpoint of the film.

The film also engenders regret. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is so unique and brilliant, that one can only wish that Laughton had turned his hand to directing again. Perhaps he had only one film in him. Perhaps he had the potential to make other films just as marvelous and unforgettable.

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