Director: Charles Laughton
Screenplay: James Agee
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
Running Time: 93 Mins
Reviewed by Guy Adams
The history of cinema is littered with baffling failures, none more so than THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Charles Laughton’s only film as a director. On its release in 1955 audiences and critics alike dismissed it and yet, viewed now, nearly sixty years later, it’s impossible to see why.
Was it the movie’s dreamy, expressionistic style? Certainly some claim so. Laughton had no interest in portraying realism certainly, but the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful and I’m at a loss as to how contemporary audiences didn’t appreciate them.
Robert Mitchum is rightly lauded as the travelling preacher who preys on widows, a psychopath with love and hate tattooed on his fingers and a flick-knife in his jacket pocket. He feels sure his god has blessed him when he hears of a widow who, unbeknownst to her, has $10,000 hidden in her house. Settling into the sweet, picture-postcard world of small-town America, he whips the populace up in religious fervour and sets his sights on the widow’s children, who know where the money is stashed.
Mitchum is one of our most compelling screen psychopaths. From the moment we see his angry hand trigger his flick-knife (the ‘sword’ he wields for God) at a stripshow, the blade piercing the cloth of his black jacket, we know we’re in the company of someone we’ll never forget. His charm, his long, lazy face, his warm singing voice as he hovers under a streetlight outside the home of his victims, the moments when the gentle facade slips and we glimpse the wide-eyed animal beneath! Rarely has a human monster been so wonderfully portrayed.
But the movie’s success doesn’t rest on Mitchum alone, the piece is a perfect whole, a terrifying, picturesque dream through which Mitchum strides. Billy Chapin, a young actor whose career petered out shortly after the movie, is equally assured as the determined John Harper, haunted by the sight of his father, handcuffed and dragged away to the gibbet by the police, and only too aware that his new stepfather has murder on his mind. Chapin’s performance, delicate and heartbreaking is the movie’s soul and the truth at the heart of Laughton’s mythical fable.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER should be lauded as one of our greatest screen accomplishments, the template by which so much great horror has been created since.
Released on the Arrow Academy label, the blu-ray is a Region B companion to the US Criterion Collection release. Lovingly restored from the original film elements, the film is partnered with the epic documentary, CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, a two hour and forty minute piece built from archive footage. It’s length may be off-putting for some but it contains real treasure, studio footage of the film being made and a real insight into both Laughton and his cast. There is also an archival interview with cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, an isolated music and effects score and a comprehensive booklet.