GORE IN THE STORE
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER *****
Directed by Charles Laughton.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.
USA 1955 93 minutes. Certificate: 12
Released by the Criterion Collection on June 28th, 2021
One of the richest, strangest, creepiest movies to ever emerge from Hollywood is 66 years old and – important to note, in the age of Zach Snyder – only and hour and half long. It exists somewhere between one of those terrifying fairy tales your Nan forgot to tell you (the kind where a Preacher resembling Robert Mitchum threatens to bleed you like a hog) and a disarmingly funny prototype for HOME ALONE as two plucky kids use slapstick violence to evade mortal danger. Charles Laughton’s only film as director isn’t a Gothic horror film (though it has a constant sense of threat and sinister atmosphere to spare), nor is it an art movie or a kids’ rites of passage movie. It alternates between all three, and so much more.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER shimmers, sparkles, beguiles and haunts all over again in this new HD Digital transfer from Criterion. Stanley Cortez’s astonishing monochrome cinematography employs deep focus, Expressionistic use of light and shadow and images of nature that will take your breath away: note the overhead shot of a spider web looming into view as the camera peers down at the moonlit, juvenile protagonists on the river. Five years before PSYCHO, it showcases one of the most (beautifully) macabre cinematic visuals of all time: a widow played by Shelley Winters, who in a conventional film would be the heroine, is killed 40 minutes in and the film keeps returning to her corpse at the bottom of the river, sporting a slit throat like “an extra mouth”, her hair swept up like seaweed.
This whimsical / disturbing yarn was the work of several creative, ambitious minds – and its evolution is superbly traced by the disc’s multiple extra features. Its origins lie with a cinematic first novel by Davis Grubb and producer Paul Gregory’s courting of Charles Laughton to bring it to the screen as a filmmaker. In a pithy celebration of Laughton, his biographer Simon Callow notes the irony of how Laughton is now best remembered for his solo directing stint of this (finally revered) picture instead of the Oscar-winning work that made him a star in 1930s and 40s Hollywood. In somewhat waning health and also one of Tinsel Town’s most famous closeted gays, Laughton responded to the book’s denouncing of religious hypocrisy, while relishing the chance to tell what he saw as a nightmarish “Mother Goose” story – a vivid rendering of a child’s nightmare.
The picture’s journey to the screen is captured in depth via a superb 38 minute “Making of”, in which various talking heads (including Gregory) talk of early casting considerations, including Olivier and Laughton himself for the role that became perhaps Mitchum’s most iconic. AFRICAN QUEEN screenwriter James Agee loved the book’s coming of age story arc and the documentary quashes oft-shared rumours of his firing during production. In any case, everyone agreed to the unusual touch of gifting the original author first credit above the adaptation. We get a sense of the unusual production (with both composer and editor on set), the relatively sparse budget (the biggest expenditure was for the novel and Mitchum’s salary) and Laughton’s great respect for (and use of) the language of silent cinema. Forsaking the “slate” and letting the camera run for the duration of a single reel, the director shifts between realism and expressionism, magic fantasy and authentic psychosis as he pays homage to everyone from D.W. Griffith to Fritz Lang and revels in contrasting performances – pitching the broad, imposing Mitchum opposite quietly lovely silent star Lillian Gish.
The archival extras offer a great chance to see Mitchum (via an edition of the 1990s BBC series “Moving Pictures”) recall the huge size of the original script and Winters enthuse of the film’s beauty and horror while sharing touching memories of the shoot. An audio commentary featuring (amongst others) archivist Robert Gitt and assistant director Terry Sanders, captures how Laughton’s spirit was crushed when United Artists, bemused by the picture’s oscillating tone and considering it an unmarketable “art” film, threw it away in distribution and thus doomed any further directorial ambitions he may have nursed. The commentators don’t agree with each other on everything (reflecting some contradictory stories surrounding this film as it earned its estimable reputation over the years) but do consider a range of essential issues, from contemporary audience and critical reactions to the much-debated issue of the extensive rewrites Laughton undertook himself without credit.
This fabulous all-round package from Criterion also ports over, from earlier releases, one of the greatest DVD extras of all time: the 150 minute “Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”. In a new addendum, Leonard Maltin and Gitt discover the origins of this unique feature – explaining how Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester made the discovery of eighteen boxes containing invaluable rushes, out takes, etc. Gitt spent two decades whittling this footage down so it could be shared with the film geek masses and the result is spellbinding: a valuable insight into Laughton in between takes, interacting with the child actors, celebrating Mitchum’s focus and struggling with Winters’ “Method” approach. The movie itself has always defied description – depending on what you take from it, it can be either terrifying or life-affirming, dread-filled or hilarious – but this disc serves to remind us just how very special it is.