By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)
The Night of the Hunter – Criterion Collection Blu-ray (2-disc)
Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like a great many films now regarded as “cult classics”, this one was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon its initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).
Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than praying. Before his condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot stashed on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A disturbing tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. It’s artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.
Criterion has done their usual voodoo with a gorgeous transfer. The 160-minute companion documentary nearly overshadows the feature. It was meticulously assembled over several decades by its director, who had access to a stash of disorganized rushes and outtakes from the film (that almost got tossed by Laughton’s widow). Laughton liked to keep the camera rolling between takes, which turned out to be a serendipitous choice for the benefit of future film scholars and movie buffs, because it is pretty amazing footage.