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THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

The Night of the Hunter - Cover'The Criterion Collection' have recently released a digitally enhanced version of 'The Night of the Hunter'. It was directed by Charles Laughton; it starred Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, and James Gleason; and it lasts for 92-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a theatrical trailer, a gallery of sketches, a documentary about the film, a two-and-a-half-hour presentation featuring footage from behind-the-scenes, three clips from archived TV shows, two interviews, as well as audio commentary narrated by Terry Sanders (a second-unit director), F. X. Feeney (a film critic), Robert Gitt (an archivist), and Preston Neal Jones (an author). Please enjoy.


The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection)


THE STORY:
At face value, you can safely say that I look like a righteous, southern preacher who's on a quest to spread the word of God wherever I go, be it right here in West Virginia or anywhere else along the Ohio River. But upon closer inspection, you'll come to realize that I'm more than that, an awful lot more, because I'm also a violent thief who's trying to find some stolen money.

You see, not so long ago, I met a man in prison called Ben, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who told me about a bank he robbed and how he hid all of the money somewhere in his home before he was caught by the police. So, upon my release, I decided to track down his family in order to find out what they knew, including his wife, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), as well as Ben's two adorable children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce).

After a while, though, I came to the realization that no one was going to tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So that's when I said to myself, 'Harry Powell!' (Robert Mitchum), for that is my name, 'Come on, man, stop messing about and start getting biblical'. But then again, that's most probably why what next transpires gets married and then gets murdered. As a couple of kids quickly run away - a nice old lady has a great place to stay - a dubious preacher tracks down his youthful prey - and at the end of the day, please remember, a life worth living is a life that doesn't stray.




THE REVIEW:
In many ways, I'd say 'The Night of the Hunter' was a very clever film as it managed to incorporate three different genres throughout its narrative. The first genre was the 'Crime' genre, which was mainly highlighted at the start (theft), the middle (murder), and at the very end of the film (siege). Whereas the second one was the 'Thriller' genre (i.e., hunter versus hunted) because a fair portion of the plot focused on two children running away from a deranged preacher. The third genre, however, was a more tonal one compared to the other two, as you can easily define it as 'Gothic Horror' (or even a Grimms' fairy tale) due to its stark, adolescent themes featuring a selection of good and bad characters who either welcomed the light of compassion or embraced the darkness of desire.

The Night of the Hunter - Robert Mitchum
Come to think of it, the overall structure of this film can also be broken down into three different parts. Part one, for instance, established the basic plot (con artist wants to find stolen money) and introduced us to most of the main characters (Harry, Willa, Pearl, and John). Part two, on the other hand, suddenly pushed the narrative in a more suspenseful direction, but only by killing off one of these characters (bye, Mom) while forcing another two to be chased by the story's central villain (think Wile E. Coyote, but with a more sinister edge). And finally, the third part of the adventure centered on a series of 'chase scenes' where 'the hunted' eventually outmaneuvered 'the hunter' by joining a group of new characters who helped them 'save the day'. The end. But not the end of this review.

After all, I can't talk about this cinematic classic without mentioning its classic cinematic style! A style, I hasten to add, that can't be divided into three different parts, but can be divided into two different components: a natural component and an artificial one. Well, where the acting was concerned, more or less, there were two different styles of performance on offer. It was either the bold and gregarious style of performance, which was usually epitomized by the pious rhetoric spoken by the preacher (praise the Lord!), or there was the more understated performance, which was generally expressed by the repressed characters yearning for some hope and salvation (amen). Similarly, the visual style of this adventure can also be categorized in a two-sided fashion. Although, in this instance, the scenery, the lighting, and the overall ambiance were nicely amalgamated with both natural and superficial elements, which resulted in a combination that ranged from artificial exteriors to realistic interiors, such as, panoramic backdrops, dimly lit barns, as well as a number of rustic rooms and storefronts that were either conservatively furnished or minimalist by design.


The Night of the Hunter - Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters


The Night of the Hunter - German Movie Poster
Anyway, that's enough of that for the time being, because now seems like a pretty good time for us to sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) 'United Artists' first released this $600,000 production in Des Moines, Iowa, on the 26th of July, 1955. (2) The screenplay for this film was adapted from a 1953 novel that was also entitled, 'The Night of the Hunter'. It was written by the American author, Davis Grubb, and he based it on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for murdering two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. (3) Loosely translated, this project was entitled, 'Cloth Dolls' in Denmark, 'The Devil's Messenger' in Brazil, and 'The Hunter's Shadow' in Portugal. (4) This film was the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton, because according to certain sources, he was disappointed with the reception it received upon its initial release, both critically and commercially, and so refused to direct any more movies. (5) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, 'The scenes...the story...The stars BUT ABOVE ALL - THE SUSPENSE!'. (6) In order to achieve its unique vintage look, Charles Laughton chose to shoot this film inside four major studios, namely, 'CBS Studio Center' in Studio City, 'Republic Studios' in Hollywood, 'RKO-Pathé Studios' in Culver City, and 'Rowland V. Lee Ranch' in Canoga Park. Although, for the sake of necessity, certain scenes were shot on location in and around Moundsville in West Virginia and select parts of Ohio. (7) During pre-production, Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, Louise Fazenda, and Elsa Lanchester were each considered for the role of Rachel Cooper, while John Carradine, Laurence Olivier, and Gary Cooper were each considered for the role of Harry Powell.


The Night of the Hunter - Lillian Gish and Kids


Now I normally conclude my movie reviews by ranking each key performance in order of preference. But in this case, dear reader, I don't honestly think I can because all of the actors who starred in 'The Night of the Hunter' were really, really good. Robert Mitchum, for instance, took on the role of the square-jawed preacher, Harry Powell, with all the charm and bile of a venomous snake. Whereas Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, on the other hand, managed to keep this film continually interesting by playing their respective roles in a bold yet understated manner: With Billy, playing John as if he were the human equivalent of Bambi, while Sally, played Pearl as if she were a cute bundle of joy. 

The Night of the Hunter - Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce
Along similar lines, I can also say the same thing about the rest of the cast as well. Most notably, Shelley Winters (who did a great job at playing the naive yet angelic, Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (who gracefully took on the saintly yet stern, Rachel Cooper), and James Gleason (who portrayed Uncle Birdie Steptoe as if he were a misguided but kind old fool). In fact, most of the supporting cast likewise deserves a mention because actors like Peter Graves (Ben Harper), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon), and Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon) managed to reinforce the plot by giving their individual characters a rather memorable edge.

But then again, this is a very memorable film, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys watching classic film noir or reading Grimms' fairy tales. Say no more.

THE RATING: A

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) Reviewed by David Andrews on June 28, 2021 Rating: 5

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