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Gordon S. Miller Written by Gordon S. Miller
Dec. 6, 2010 | 1:50 PM

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THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - The Criterion Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

For years I’ve heard about 1955’s The Night Of The Hunter and how well done it was, but with my only catching clips here and there on various documentaries, I never really knew.  That is until now.  From its acting and directing to its plot, score, and imagery, it is a true masterpiece of cinema. It is really too bad that director Charles Laughton only got behind the camera for one film, but thanks to the Criterion Collection, we have this wonderful film preserved and presented with all kinds of bells and whistles on a two-disc set.

Longtime actor turned director Charles Laughton brings the story of man’s struggle with good and evil to life. First the plot in a nutshell: twisted, fanatical Preacher Harry Powell (captured perfectly by Robert Mitchum), with “love” and “hate” tattooed across his fingers, moves from town to town and preys on widows whose small fortunes he can use to further spread the word of the Lord. In search of his next destination, the Lord smiles on Preacher Powell with a blessing in disguise as he lands in jail for a minor offense. Preacher finds his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves, James Arness’ brother for movie trivia fans), is sentenced to die for bank robbery and that means Preacher has found his next victim in soon to be widowed Willa Harper (Shelly Winters).

What Preacher doesn’t expect is that the money is hidden and widow Harper’s two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) guard the secret well. As Preacher charms the widow and the town’s folk, only young John sees through the fake holy act. Against young John’s protest, Preacher becomes his Papa and the darkness of evil continues to shroud the Harper family. So after widow Harper “abandons” her new husband and family to journey “up river”, the children can stand Preacher no more and make their escape down river, Huck Finn style in a canoe.

With Preacher in hot pursuit the two children drift along the riverbank until they finally stumble upon a saving angel (wonderfully played by silent star Lillian Gish) who shows them the true meaning of good with her stern yet kindhearted ways. And in the final showdown she proves that all it takes to ward off and defeat evil is love and a shotgun.

The story, grounded in fact, based on a novel by Davis Grubb, and adapted for the screen by James Agee, doesn’t sound like much, but this film is magnificent from start to finish. Never a boring moment as you sit up in your seat waiting for what happens next. And that’s exactly what director Laughton wanted to achieve. In his opinion, moviegoers had become passive watchers to the events unfolding on the screen in front of them and his aim was to remedy that. He wanted his audience to sit straight up in their chairs with anticipation of the next scene as they did in the early days of cinema.

To achieve his goals, Laughton went back and studied the masters of silent film, whose movie world had to be visually stunning and different. All it takes is one viewing of the film to see the influences of D.W. Griffith and German Expressionism. His camera angles are brilliant as well as his use of lighting and shadows; the choice of sets and location are also well thought out and great.  From the opening shot, he grabs your attention and never lets go.  Watch as the children move along the river, stars are vivid and brighter than ever.  Animals and sounds are pushed to the front and appear larger than life, and just listen as the music tells that danger is at hand.

The acting is superb from the old veterans to the young players. Laughton brings out the best in them and was not afraid to do a scene over and over until he thought it was right. He even recast a character after his scenes had been shot because he felt the mood was wrong. The great two and a half-hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night Of The Hunter shows all the work that went into his sole directorial turn. We see how he got his cast to work and how he motivated them.  Although sometimes harsh, he got the feel he wanted and which the film needed. This documentary, although sometimes repetitive, is never boring as we see a master work with an excellent cast and crew.  We also get some bloopers, some alternate takes, and a good look at how the magic of movies is really done.

The Night Of The Hunter can easily be looked at as a horror movie of sorts, a definite thriller and drama of the highest standards that can be easily viewed many times. The direction of Charles Laughton keeps the movie pushing ever forward as the actors give fine performances in their roles. Robert Mitchum as the stick-knife-wielding Preacher is awesome.  I don’t think anyone else could have played the role as he did, representing one side in the battle of good and evil in an at times comical way.  I can’t rave enough about the talent of Charles Laughton. His scenes on and in the river are fascinating; the lighting on certain scenes and the sets themselves are beautiful. This film easily ranks with Citizen Kane in its magnificent camera work.

I can go on and on about the wonder and majesty of The Night Of The Hunter but the Criterion Collection has it all perfectly summed up in their supplements and booklet that are second to none. Bringing us all the available extras they can from introductions, trailers, features with vintage and new interviews, clips from The Ed Sullivan Show to multiple audio tracks that further the viewing pleasure for true film fans. This two-disc set is the definitive look at an American classic that has stood the test of time and sits high on the ladder of anything the film world has ever put forth.

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