Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
Written by: James Agee (and Charles Laughton, uncredited), based on a novel by Davis Grubb
Directed by: Charles Laughton
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 93
Date: 07/26/1955

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Creature Preacher

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Charles Laughton began acting in films as early as 1928 and became a star a few years later with The Old Dark House, The Sign of the Cross, Island of Lost Souls, and winning the Best Actor Oscar for 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII. He continued a prosperous career in films like Mutiny on the Bounty, Witness for the Prosecution and Spartacus. But it wasn't until 1955 that he found his true calling.

In 1955 he gathered a dynamic team consisting of screenwriter James Agee, cinematographer Stanley Cortez and actors Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish and took the helm as director. The finished product was The Night of the Hunter, which easily ranks among the greatest American films.

But it was not always so. The film flopped and faded quickly and Laughton was never allowed to direct again. And though many consider the film a classic today, it was still suspiciously left off the 1998 American Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest American Films, suggesting that -- even after 45 years -- the film is still ahead of its time.

While serving a 30-day prison sentence, Harry Powell (Mitchum) learns about a wad of stolen cash that his cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has hidden, but is unable to learn where before Harper dies. When Powell, a self-ordained "Preacher," gets out he approaches the dead man's family in the hopes of finding the money. He begins to romance Harper's widow (Winters) and to torment his kids, the 9 year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 4 year-old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Before long, Powell tips his hand and begins a cross-country chase looking for the kids and Pearl's doll, which holds the money.

Eventually the children reach the home of the angelic old lady (Gish) who protects them, and the image of her waiting on the front porch with a shotgun is unforgettable. It's a powerful image of good vs. evil in which both good and evil claim to have God on their side. It's these shades of gray that make the film all the more powerful. Mitchum, as Powell, makes one of the greatest movie villains of all time simply because he believes everything he does is in the name of God. He feels he's doing the right thing.

Cinematographer Cortez paints the landscape in unreal swashes, using the black and white as shades of good and evil, just like the tattoos on Powell's fingers: L-O-V-E on his right hand and H-A-T-E on his left. (Spike Lee paid tribute to the film with Bill Nunn's Radio Raheem character in Do the Right Thing.)

Perhaps one reason the film still does not have the recognition it deserves is because of the intense danger it puts the two children in. Powell kills both their parents and the film leaves no doubt that he would kill the children in a heartbeat. That's why Laughton and Cortez put the movie into such a visually bizarre context, making it as fairy tale-ish and nightmarish as possible -- with its tilted angles, strong shadows and plays of light. Though the suspense is real, no one could ever believe that the children were in any real-life danger, no more than Hansel and Gretel were.

It would take Bunuel and some of the more adventurous young filmmakers of the 70s, 80s and 90s to venture into nightmarish territory like this again (I'm thinking of Robert Altman's 3 Women, David Lynch's various works, and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, among others). If he had been allowed to make more films, Laughton's name would surely be mentioned alongside those and other great filmmakers. We should rejoice that Laughton was able to materialize his vision at least this once. Better than not at all.

The Criterion Collection's 2010 Blu-Ray comes with an astonishing wealth of materials. Firstly, there's the amazing transfer, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Then we get a commentary track with second-unit director Terry Sanders, and other historians, new and archival interviews, sketches, a trailer, a vintage documentary, and a clip from "The Ed Sullivan Show," on which actors re-create a deleted scene. But the big bonus comes on disc two: it's a 2-and-a-half-hour collection of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, going deep into this sometimes mysterious and misunderstood film.

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