Release Date(s)1955 (May 30, 2023)
Studio(s)Paul Gregory Productions/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
The Night of the Hunter was the sole directorial effort from actor Charles Laughton, and to this day it remains entirely unlike anything else that’s ever been produced, either before or since. Laughton drew heavily from the rich cinematic traditions that preceded him, including German Expressionism and the works of D.W. Griffith, but he fused all of those influences into a film that doesn’t fit neatly into any easily identifiable boxes. Night of the Hunter was decidedly old-fashioned, even for 1955, yet it openly addressed subject matter that automatically raised red flags with the Production Code: child abuse, the seduction of young girls, and religious hucksterism. The latter category was something that directors were starting to explore at that point, leading to exposés like Elmer Gantry in 1960, but The Night of the Hunter is anything but a sacrilegious screed—quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. It simultaneously condemns false religion while affirming the strength of true faith.
The Night of the Hunter proclaims that theme right from its opening sequence, but it does so in a way that makes it equally clear that Laughton wasn’t going to handle any of this material in the expected fashion. The first shot superimposes the comforting face of D.W. Griffith vet Lilian Gish over the nighttime sky, followed by a tableau of five different children’s faces spread out in an arc over those same stars. Rachel Cooper (Gish) is telling Bible stories to these children, and she closes by reading to them from Matthew 7:15:
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
The extraordinary thing is that while she just summed up the entire plot of the film in one simple sentence, the whole sequence is completely non-diegetic. Rachel and the children won’t be introduced as characters until much later in the narrative. Instead, Laughton dissolves away from them to the main story, where Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) pursues the recently widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in order to get after money that’s being hidden by her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Powell styles himself a preacher, but he’s really a Bluebeard who seduces, marries, and murders women for their money. Powell had recently served a brief prison sentence where he encountered Willa’s soon-to-be executed husband Ben (Peter Graves), and he decided to make her his next target:
“Lord, you sure knowed what You was doin’ when You put me in this very cell at this very time. A man with $10,000 hid somewhere, and a widow in the makin’.“
Powell ends up making quite an impression on the townsfolk where Willa lives, since he’s a mighty preacher, and he’s got the grandest singing voice. Yet something clearly is missing. Powell travels while singing the innocuous hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, and he loves to tell the little story of right hand/left hand. He has the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of each hand, and he uses them to provide an object lesson of the triumph of the one over the other. Despite the complete lack of any kind of gospel message in his preaching and singing, everyone is easily taken in by him, including Willa. Or nearly everyone, anyway: John is the only person who recognizes that something’s wrong with Powell, even if he can’t articulate the reasons why. His fears prove well-founded, so both he and Pearl end up on the run with the Preacher in hot pursuit.
It’s at this point that Rachel Cooper finally enters the story. She’s a widow of her own, but unlike Willa, she’s a strong-willed and wise one—and unlike Powell, she practices what she preaches. Rachel is a mother hen who picks up stray Depression-era children to take care of them, and before long, John and Pearl end up under her wing as well. When Powell finally tracks them down, it leads to an unforgettable sequence where he tries to trick her into giving the children back to him. All throughout the film, Powell’s theatrical religiosity has easily fooled those with a superficial understanding of their own faith, so when he sheds some crocodile tears while trying to tell Rachel the story of love and hate, it’s easy to imagine that she might be just as easily deceived by him. Yet viewers who remember the opening of the film should know better than that. When John tells her that “He ain’t my Pa,” Rachel pauses a moment before responding decisively:
“No. And he ain’t no preacher, neither!”
If that’s not a moment to make even the most jaded of film fans cheer out loud, then what she does following her proclamation will rectify that situation. Yet this particular ravening wolf is both dangerous and patient, forcing Rachel to keep watch over her flock at night while he lays siege to her house. As he waits for an opening, he falls back into his old habits and starts singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms again. The words to that hymn are generic and non-threatening, speaking of joy, peace and fellowship, but without any real depth or theological underpinnings—or at least, that’s true of the melody. Cooper knows the song well, so when he gets to the chorus and sings “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms,” she adds the harmony:
“Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus.”
Of course, that’s what’s been missing from this false prophet’s message. The Matthew 7 passage that opens the film goes on to say that you will recognize false prophets by their fruit, and Rachel’s simple but pure faith was instantly able to spot the fruit from a bad tree. In contrast, she describes herself as a strong tree with branches for many birds, and her roots are deep enough that she can’t be shaken. Harry Powell is the yin to Rachel Cooper’s yang, and only one of those two will abide.
The fascinating thing about The Night of the Hunter is how all of this developed. It was based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, which was a bit more overt in the way that it addressed religious hucksterism. The Production Code Administration under Joseph Breen was having none of that, so screenwriter James Agee gradually reshaped the adaptation in order to get PCA approval. Yet as sometimes happens under the thumb of censorship, the resulting film ended up better and more nuanced than it might have been if Agee and Laughton had been given more freedom. That’s not to say that The Night of the Hunter is a particularly subtle film, because it’s anything but that. The performances are theatrical, the humor is broad (sometimes surprisingly earthy), the score by Walter Schumann is melodramatic, and the style is wildly expressionistic. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez created a unique world for the film, lighting the sets in a way that enhanced their artificiality rather than trying to disguise it. It’s the visual equivalent of a child’s fever dream brought to life—appropriately enough, the song that plays over the opening credits is called Dream, Little One, Dream.
Unfortunately, audiences in 1955 didn’t know what to make of The Night of the Hunter, and Charles Laughton’s first directorial effort would prove to be his last. While the film did reflect some of the changes that Hollywood was starting to undergo, Laughton chose to do so by throwing a mirror up to the past as well. The Night of the Hunter was something of an anachronism in 1955, and remains an anachronism to this very day. Yet that’s why it’s always been so perfectly timeless. The Night of the Hunter doesn’t belong to any specific era, and so it belongs to all eras instead. It’s a hard world for some films, but this particular gem represents the cinema at its strongest. It abides.
Stanley Cortez shot The Night of the Hunter on 35 mm film using spherical lenses. This version features a new 4K scan of the original camera negative that was restored photochemically in 2001 by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, under the supervision of Robert Gitt. It also features a new High Dynamic Range grade in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Given the fact that The Night of the Hunter includes a lot of optical work like dissolves and superimpositions, there’s a fair amount of material in the final film that’s a bit soft due to the unavoidable generational loss from the process. That includes the entire leading and trailing edges of each shot that was involved, so a significant quantity of the total running time is affected. That’s nothing unusual for films from this era, but it’s worth noting that the opening credit sequence is unusually soft, looking like it took several passes through the printer, or else was derived from different elements. Aside from the unavoidably softer footage, the rest of the film is as sharp as it possibly can be, although it’s debatable whether or not there’s really 4K worth of detail available on the negative. The grain is reproduced well, even if it may appear a bit heavy in comparison to how it would have looked on theatrical prints, and there’s little remaining damage visible aside from a few scratches on one of the establishing shots and in the background element of one traveling matte (stock footage, perhaps?) There are some helicopter shots that look unstable, but they’ve always been that way due to issues with stabilizing the original camera rig. The grayscale is flawless, and the HDR grades strengthen the contrast, providing slightly more detail at both extreme ends of the range. Cortez shot some of the interiors on Kodak Tri-X stock, not necessarily because of its speed, but rather because he wanted the deep blacks that it could provide. Those black levels are reproduced well in HDR, giving everything the dramatic punch that he was trying to achieve.
Now, let me tell you the little story of 1.66:1 on the right hand, and 1.85:1 on the left. The Night of the Hunter was produced during a transitional period from the open-matte Academy Aperture to modern widescreen, and while Cortez did expose the full 1.37:1 negative area, it was always intended to be shown matted. During that period, some films were exhibited at 1.66:1, and others at 1.85:1—in some cases both, with different theatres matting to different ratios depending on the screen that they had. That’s where those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one against the other. By 1955, when Night of the Hunter was released, 1.85:1 had struck the blow that laid his brother low, and that’s the ratio reported by Box Office Weekly in July of that year. On the other hand, their listing would have been based on information provided to them by distributor United Artists, which may or may not have been accurate. Robert Gitt and the UCLA Film & Television archive have insisted that 1.66:1 is correct, and that’s the ratio that Criterion used for their 2010 Blu-ray. Kino Lorber’s release is the first home video version to opt for the 1.85:1 ration instead. The compositions never appear too cramped at this ratio, so it’s entirely possible that Cortez protected for it regardless of what he may have intended, as The Night of the Hunter could have been exhibited at both ratios. In any event, absent any definitive proof one way or the other, everything looks fine at 1.85:1, so it may come down to personal preference.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The 5.1 track adds some processing to the original mono in an attempt to create a wider and deeper soundstage, but it’s not particularly effective, so the mono 2.0 is the way to go. On the other hand (sorry), there’s some online debate about whether or not this 2.0 is really the original mono, since it may be a fold-down of the 5.1 track instead. When compared to the Criterion Blu-ray, their mono track may have a slight edge, but the differences aren’t that dramatic. Aside from some distortion during the opening children’s song, everything else is relatively clean and clear for a film of this vintage.
Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Night of the Hunter is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with additional extras—note that the film itself is on the UHD only, possibly due to a licensing conflict with Criterion. There’s also a slipcover that duplicates the original alternate poster artwork used for the insert. The following extras are included:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
- Isolated Music and Effects Track
DISC TWO: BD
- Love and Hate (HD – 8:31)
- Little Lambs (HD – 9:53)
- Hing, Hang, Hung (HD – 15:42)
- Trailer #1 (HD – 1:38)
- Trailer #2 (HD – 1:36)
- Not as a Stranger Trailer (HD – 3:14)
- Man with the Gun Trailer (HD – 2:25)
- Secret Ceremony Trailer (SD – 2:03)
- The Raging Tide Trailer (HD – 2:15)
- He Ran All the Way Trailer (HD – 2:14)
- Witness for the Prosecution Trailer (SD – 3:08)
- 12 Angry Men Trailer (HD – 2:16)
- The Killing Trailer (HD – 1:49)
Tim Lucas sat down to record a new commentary track for Night of the Hunter, and unsurprisingly, it’s a fascinating and informative look at the film. He also discusses the Grubb novel, which he says is one of the finest that he’s ever read, and notes some of the differences between it and the film. The book had the Preacher openly claiming the name of Jesus, so the fact that he never does so in the film helped to draw a sharper distinction between the false prophets and the real ones. As usual, Lucas prepared carefully, and so he’s able to identify every actor down to the smallest role, and many other minute details as well. He identifies his sources, which is always appreciated, and highly recommends the Preston Neal Jones book Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. (I ended up ordering a copy for myself, so thanks to Tim for the recommendation.) This commentary is a great introduction to the world of what Lucas says was Charles Laughton’s love letter to D.W. Griffith.
Love and Hate is an interview with director/cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who talks about his love for The Night of the Hunter that he shared with his fellow NYU film student Spike Lee, leading to their famous homage by Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. He points out some of his favorite shots in the film, and lavishes praise on the unforgettable camerawork and lighting by Stanley Cortez. Little Lambs is an interview with actress Kathy Garver, who discusses how her career as a child actor in the theatre led to making The Night of the Hunter as her first film. She actually doubled for Sally Jane Bruce in a few shots (that’s her in many of the shots of the skiff going down the river), as well as playing her own uncredited role as one of the children in the film. Hing, Hang, Hung is an interview with painter and performer Joe Coleman, who provides the backstory of the real-life case on which Davis Grubb based his novel. He also analyses some of the changes that Davis made to the real people and events, and provides his own thoughts about the film.
Unsurprisingly, none of the copious extras from the Criterion Blu-ray have been included here. Their set had one of their own curated commentary tracks, as well as stack of interviews, documentaries, and featurettes: an Introduction by Robert Gitt; The Making of The Night of the Hunter; Simon Callow on Charles Laughton; Moving Pictures; an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, an interview with Stanley Cortez; and David Grubb Sketches. Yet the crown jewel of their release was Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, a 159-minute documentary by Robert Gitt that offered a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, and deleted scenes. Needless to say, if you own the Criterion set, you’re going to want to hang onto it for the extras. Yet if you want to see The Night of the Hunter in 4K (and at 1.85:1), then you’re going to have to double-dip and pick up Kino Lorber’s set as well. It’s a hard world for little children and physical media collectors alike, but we abide, and we endure.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on Facebook at this link)