Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: The Criterion edition of 'The Night of the Hunter'

In 1955, actor Charles Laughton directed his first and final film and Robert Mitchum embodied one of the cinema’s most relentless, frightening, and oddly humorous bogeymen. Mitchum is Harry Powell, a psychotic Big Bad Wolf in preacher’s clothing on the hunt for a pair of children who know the location of a cache of cash (and how relevant is that theme of a predatory priest today, kids?).

Laughton’s nightmarish yet fanciful adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel Night of the Hunter was such a peculiar duck that critics didn’t know what to make of it and audiences stayed away. History, of course, has been loving to this lovingly made film, and Criterion, the home of lovingly made DVDs, gave Night of the Hunter the luxury treatment last November. Previously only available in a no-frills, pan and scan edition, Criterion presents the film in its original 1.66.1 aspect ratio, digitally remastered from the 35 mm film elements. I actually found the standard DVD version of the film (also available in blu-ray) to be slightly grainy, yet getting to see it in wide screen and the multitude of extras more than neutralized that gripe.

The double-disc’s biggest boon is the 150-minute documentary titled Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”, which is fascinating not only for making good on its title but for dispelling some of the myths that have been swirling about the film for decades. The footage, which Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester originally released from her personal archives to a less-than-respectful film school, shows the director coaxing rich performances from his cast, often acting the parts himself from off-camera. Legend has it that he so despised young Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce that he allowed Mitchum to direct the two kids. Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” refutes this myth completely; we witness a very kind, very patient, and very complimentary Laughton, his work resulting in Chapin giving one of the great child-actor performances. Seeing Laughton work with Shelley Winters also suggests that his relationship with the actress may not have been as troubled as history— and some of the commentators on this DVD— suggest.

The documentary, mostly presenting the trove of footage straight with a minimum of narration from archivist Robert Gitt, also features alternate and deleted scenes from the film, most memorably Lillian Gish’s opening monologue read by Laughton, a scene with Emmett Lynn playing Uncle Birdie Steptoe instead of James Gleason, Bruce's unused vocal for the "There Was a Pretty Fly" song, and Chapin losing his head in a matte shot gone awry.

Hunter's' most mesmerizing sequence. 

More myths are debunked in Michael Sragow’s booklet essay “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee”, which sets straight the screenwriter’s role in penning the film (it has long been suggested that Laughton wrote the film in lieu of an alcoholic Agee). Other supplements— including a feature commentary by second-unit director Terry Sanders, Gitt, and others; a useful 37 doc titled “The Making of Night of the Hunter; and assorted new and archival interviews— fill in all remaining gaps in the Night of the Hunter story. A clip of Shelley Winters and Peter Graves performing a scene absent from the film on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is historically fascinating for a plethora of reasons.

Criterion’s edition of Night of the Hunter is absolutely essential for anyone who has ever been intoxicated or terrified by this truly one-of-a-kind film. Get it at Amazon.com here.
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