The Night of the Hunter was the directorial debut of legendary British actor Charles Laughton although due to the largely negative response from both the cinema going public and the critics during its original release in 1955 it was to be his only film behind the camera. Clearly, the movie was years ahead of its time and is now considered one of the standout classics of film noir and amongst the mostly strikingly photographed films ever made.
Set in a small midwestern town in depression era America Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is driven to commit a hold-up in which two people are killed, on the run he leaves the $10,000 spoils of the crime with his two young children, swearing them never to reveal the location of the money which they hide in his daughter’s toy doll. Whilst in prison waiting to be hanged Harper shares a cell with a phoney preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is serving a 30 day stretch for stealing a car. Powell overhears Harper talking in his sleep about the robbery but he wakes up refusing to reveal the location of the cash, a secret he takes with him to the gallows.
On his release Powell visits Harper’s home town and makes a play for his widow Willa (Shelly Winters) who works at the local Soda Fountain, she is struggling to look after her children and feels tainted by the sins of her husband; coaxed both by public opinion that no woman should raise a family alone and the hope that being the partner of a preacher will lead her on the path to salvation she concedes to the will of Harry Powell and marries him. It becomes clear all too soon that Powell is only interested in finding the loot and he puts pressure on the kids to reveal their secret.
Robert Mitchum who is known for his typically tough and taciturn performances is outstandingly mischievous yet menacing as the devilish false profit Powell and in his key scene uses the tattoos of LOVE and HATE on his knuckles to tell a modern day parable of the battle between good and evil; an indelible movie moment that was brilliantly quoted in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing 30 years later. When Powell murders Willa and the children flee for their own lives taking a boat down the Mississippi, the film becomes a metaphorical journey from darkness into the light when they reach the end of the river and find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) an old woman who takes in waifs and strays.
Whilst the story is relatively simple the film scores highly for its incredible sense of suspense and the stunning visual imagery provided by renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez taking his inspiration from the great German Expressionists Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau; the children’s trip down the river is peppered with unusual camera angles and deep focus shots that include various wildlife creatures frolicking by the banks. The use sound and music is just as striking and surreal, particularly effective is the two-part singing between the children and Rachel Cooper and later when Harry Powell takes the counterpoint.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release sports a miraculous picture transferred directly from the original 35mm negative to a full 1080p/AVC MEPG-4 encode and presented for the first time in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The monochrome photography has never looked so sharp with perfect contrast between ebony blacks and radiant whites which are showcased by the shots containing prominent shafts of light and the shadows that encroach on Willa’s bedroom as Harry Powell looms over her. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is uncompressed and totally appropriate for a movie of its age, so often the attempts to create a 5.1 surround approximation lose the directness, particularly when it comes to dialogue.
The Night of the Hunter has undoubtedly been an influence on the works of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers to name but a few and this hidef release will ensure its unique spellbinding magic will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers yet to come.