Made in 1955, and his only directorial credit, Charles Laughton’s strange and heady mix of noir, horror and Christmas fable is finally getting a UK Region B Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films. I had never seen NIGHT OF THE HUNTER before now, and when a film is considered an all-time classic I always find myself approaching such things with trepidation, just in case the film doesn’t live up to the expectations created by the reams of written material that have already been afforded it. I needn’t have worried. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is definitely a unique film, but in all the right ways.
Psychotic preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) marries widows for their money and then murders them, in the warped belief that he is helping God rid the world of women who turn men away from His path. He’s arrested for stealing a car, and ends up in the same prison cell as convicted murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper has stolen $10000. Powell knows this but is unaware that only Harper’s two small children know where it’s hidden. Harper goes to the gallows and Powell leaves prison to pursue Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). The two of them marry but when Willa doesn’t live up to Powell’s expectations he kills her and dumps her body in a nearby lake. The children escape, closely pursued by Powell in search of the stolen money.
A critical and financial disaster on its original release (the accompanying documentary claims poor publicity and they may be right - certainly the movie poster made it look as if audiences should expect Laughton’s version of GONE WITH THE WIND) NIGHT OF THE HUNTER has gone on to achieve classic status. A quick trawl of the myriad other reviews on the internet suggests it’s quite a Marmite film - people either love it or hate it. It’s certainly quite quirky - the film veers from arthouse German expressionism to scenes of almost knockabout comedy - but even if the plot doesn’t grab you (and there’s something wrong with you if it doesn’t), there are so many shots of sheer brilliance that you’ll be wanting to replay scenes just to revel in them again and again. The scene of the underwater corpse is breathtaking - similarly dreamlike, poetic, and yet filled with horror. Laughton’s use of light and shadow is extremely clever and is obviously the product of much careful thought. The performances are excellent - Mitchum not just trying out for his forthcoming role in J Lee Thompson’s CAPE FEAR here but actually bettering it. Winters is good as the lonely widow who undergoes Powell’s religious conversion, as is Lillian Gish as the flip-side of the psychotic religious fanaticism exhibited by Mitchum. As the Christian saviour of the piece, it’s only right that in the world of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER she should get the last line.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray is a welcome release for a movie only otherwise available in this format from Criterion. It uses the same UCLA digital transfer as the Criterion Region A disc, and it also includes the two and a half hour plus documentary about the film entitled Charles Laughton Directs. Also carried over is an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and a trailer. There’s new writing on the film and a Graham Humphreys sleeve. The Criterion has more extras, but the Arrow disc is a lot cheaper. If you have a multi-region player the choice is up to you.
Arrow Films are releasing Charles Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER on Blu-ray on 28th October 2013