Thinking I would never see the day, Criterion presents Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Originally released by MGM on DVD it was actually a pretty decent release, despite being released during the early days of the format. It presented the film open-matte (which may or may not be an issue to some) and did at times look to have been boosted, but the materials were in pretty good shape and the transfer was at least incredibly sharp and fairly clean; it looks good upscaled. Still, Criterion’s Blu-ray is a welcome upgrade and manages to improve upon that transfer in every way. Working from a new restoration performed by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, The Night of the Hunter now looks the best it ever has on home video.
The high-def digital transfer presents a very film-like image, presenting fine object details not noticeable before in the sets, landscapes, and even clothing. Film grain is present and looks natural, but does get heavy on occasion. The image remains consistently sharp throughout and there isn’t a moment where I noticed it go significantly soft. Contrast has been greatly improved upon, looking more natural with more distinct gray levels and strong, inky blacks. The print also presents little damage, just a few minor blemishes. In this regard it has been cleaned up wonderfully.
There was one moment in the first bedroom scene with Winters’ and Mitchum’s characters where I detected some shimmering effects in the drapes, which oddly appear in special features that present the scene as well. Other than this moment, though, I didn’t notice any other artifacts or digital problems, the digital transfer itself looking very smooth and clean.
I never thought we’d get a new presentation after MGM abandoned their rumoured special edition (I assume because of their financial “troubles”) but Criterion stepped in and I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we get. Both the UCLA Film and Television Archive (for their restoration) and Criterion (for the sharp transfer) really knocked it out for this; it looks far better than I ever could have hoped for. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s two-disc set is loaded with a few hours of material, some of which I think were originally produced for the abandoned MGM special edition, starting with the audio commentary found on the first disc featuring film critic F.X Feeney, film archivist Robert Gitt, author Preston Neal Jones, and second-unit director Terry Sanders. The commentary was recorded in 2008 and some aspects date it (they wish the recently deceased Peter Graves a happy birthday for instance) but overall it’s a very passionate and engaging track, with all participants recorded together. Feeney, Gitt, and Jones all talk about first seeing the film and their reactions to it, along with how its reputation has grown over time since its initial cold reception. They also give some background and history to the production, and also enjoy pointing out shots possibly influenced by D.W. Griffith, whose films Laughton and screenwriter James Agee watched religiously around the time of the production. Sanders is fielded a few questions about the production but since he did second-unit stuff primarily he can really only confirm or deny a few things, though does have his own anecdotes and stories to share. Despite the fact the other supplements found on this set cover the film extensively, making the track a little redundant in areas, it’s still a swift and breezy track that I rather enjoyed.
The next supplement, The making of The Night of the Hunter, looks to be an MGM produced supplement that again was probably produced for the abandoned MGM reissue, but it is a rather good one (MGM’s making-ofs were usually always rather well done for the DVDs of their catalogue films—their one for the original Casino Royale was one of the best ones I had seen.) Running 38-minutes it features interviews with Feeney, Gitt, Jones, and Sanders, along with producer Paul Gregory. The documentary covers the production fairly extensively from the publishing of the book on which it’s based to Laughton wanting to direct to its initial release. There’s some interesting topics covered such as the casting (also covered in the commentary track,) specifically author Davis Grubb’s fear that Robert Mitchum was too “sexy” for the role (where Laughton wanted someone like that) and the casting of the children and how Laughton worked with them. General stories about the production are shared, but adding on to this Gregory (and others) express their anger at how United Artists handled the marketing for the film, obviously having no idea what kind of movie they had, and also not really caring, and then they touch on some of the controversies surrounding the film upon its release. Though there are some contradictions when compared to other features on this set (here it’s suggested that Laughton came to this wanting to direct, while another feature on the set suggests Laughton initially wanted to play Harry Powell with no intention in directing) it’s a brisk feature offering a fairly thorough look at its production.
Criterion recorded an 11-minute interview with Simon Callow on Laughton and The Night of the Hunter (he’s mentioned briefly in the making-of for comments he made about Mitchum’s performance.) He talks about Laughton and how unfamiliar he is as an actor to the general audience (which I was surprised to hear since I had been familiar with him since being a young’un) but his only directorial effort is more familiar to people. He gives a bit of a history on Laughton and the path he took from acting to directing the film, and goes over some of the themes brought up in the film, such as the hypocrisy of religion and sexual repression, both of which were themes he was interested in since he felt forced to hide his homosexuality. It’s brief but Callow gives a fairly loving tribute to Laughton and also expands on material found in the other supplements on the set.
Criterion next includes a 14-minute episode of Moving Pictures from 1995 covering the making of The Night of the Hunter, featuring interviews with Gregory, cinematographer Stanley Cortez, art director Hilyard Brown, along with others involved with the production, including cast members Shelley Winters and Robert Mitchum, and then archival footage of Lillian Gish. Though there is plenty repeated here from before, there’s a bit more about James Agee’s behemoth script (which Mitchum clearly recalls.) There’s more on Griffith’s influence and then again more criticism against United Artist’s marketing department. Again it repeats some material but it’s a great inclusion, especially for the fact we get interviews with Mitchum and Winters.
The next feature, entitled The Ed Sullivan Show in the menu, is very cool inclusion. The 4-minute segment from the show was first broadcast on September 25th, 1955, and features actors Winters and Peter Graves reenacting a deleted scene from the film, involving Winters’ Willa Harper visiting Graves’ Ben harper in prison. I can see why the scene never made it to the film as it offers little to the film. Still a great inclusion nonetheless.
Moving along Criterion includes a 13-minute segment from the French program Cinema cinemas featuring an interview with director of photography Stanley Cortez. Narrated in French, the actual interview is in English (with burned in French subtitles) and features Cortez talking about the craft, the camera, and then some of the directors he’s worked with (which includes Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang, and, of course, Charles Laughton.) The interview focuses on The Night of the Hunter and the use of light in the film, with Cortez even sharing some of his thoughts on light. He can come off egotistical (despite him saying he’s trying not to) but it’s a very engaging interview.
Finishing off the first disc are a small collection of sketches by Davis Grubb. When Grubb learned that Laughton was intending to adapt his novel he sent the director sketches of how he saw certain scenes. Here they are presented with notes and comparisons to the actual scenes that appeared in the film. The disc then closes with the same theatrical trailer that appeared on the MGM DVD, further showing that United Artists had no idea how to market the film.
And yet we get more. While all of the supplements listed previously would have been decent enough in the terms of material, Criterion includes a second dual-layer Blu-ray disc dedicated to one feature running 159-minutes, simply called Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”. I had heard of this though my understanding was it was a documentary with a lot of outtakes from the film. Despite my adoration for The Night of the Hunter I wasn’t looking all that forward to seeing it as it felt like overkill. I was thrilled with it, though, and if you were to only view one feature on here this would be it. It was put together by archivist Robert Gitt from a huge pile of footage that Laughton had kept for years. It presents plenty of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, but in the cleverest of ways. Though it begins like a standard documentary would, giving a background to Laughton and the film, it quickly moves to the outtakes and has been edited together following the timeline of the film. So one of the early segments would be Mitchum’s Powell driving down a country road talking to God, and here Gitt presents many takes of the scene, including Mitchum’s flubs and chuckles after delivering his lines (Mitchum apparently had trouble with the scene, finding it a little goofy, though that’s sort of the beauty of it) and then we move on to the burlesque scene, his court scene, and so on, presenting the film in order but using these alternate takes, angles or finished segments.
With this presentation, accompanied with narration by Gitt, we get to see Laughton and crew at work and we know exactly where we are in the film. We see how Laughton works with the children, and despite some obvious frustration he handles it incredibly well and obviously built up a rapport with his young stars as you can through Billy Chapin, who really wants to please the director. You also get to see Laughton’s respect for his actors, best shown when one actress apologizes for messing up earlier on one of her lines, to which Laughton replies that it’s “alright, dear, it doesn’t matter.” You also get to see the perfectionism in Laughton’s direction, which Gitt points out in the numerous takes of Winters’ delivery of the line “the children know where it’s hid.”
There’s plenty of other treats found in here, including Mitchum’s scream in the river, his alternate take to his later “whooping” scene, and seeing scenes with unfinished effects, among other things. And though the narration by Gitt can be corny (I really did roll my eyes after one comment about a rabbit used in the foreground during the river scene) this is an absolutely fantastic film, especially for longtime fans. An absolutely wonderful inclusion.
Criterion also includes an introduction featuring Gitt talking with film critic Leonard Maltin. The 18-minute interview has Gitt talk about how he came across Laughton’s footage from the film and the 20 year process of restoring the actual film and putting together the Charles Laughton Directs… feature. It originally ran 8 hours but was cut down to a more manageable 159-minutes for public consumption. He talks about his decision to follow the film’s timeline, and the two also talk about their love of the film and things they picked up from what Gitt has put together, including some friction between Winters and Laughton, despite the two being longtime friends.
In all this disc as a whole is incredible, and easily the best thing about this release (other than the actual film of course.)
Criterion then includes a booklet with two essays, one by Terrence Rafferty on the film, and another Michael Sragow on writer James Agee, covering the script for the film and his work as a whole. Both are short but excellent reads.
Though I’d hate to make a generalizing statement, this is probably the most impressive collection of supplements I’ve seen from Criterion (or anyone) in a long while. The supplements are all thorough and engaging, not a dud in the bunch. But it’s Criterion’s inclusion of Gitt’s Charles Laughton Directs… that seals the deal on this set. An absolutely perfect collection of material. 10/10