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Night of the Hunter, The (Blu-ray Review)

29 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 two-DVD set, $49.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.

Even for a movie budgeted in the $600,000 range with a short 36-day shooting schedule, Charles Laughton’s 1955 directorial masterpiece from Davis Grubb’s novel was a serious box office failure that by all accounts (including wife Elsa Lanchester’s) broke Laughton’s heart. Today, of course, it is routinely included on lists of the greatest movies ever made in any country, which further proves that it doesn’t ultimately matter if this week’s Katherine Heigl comedy finishes in has a boffo opening week or not.

I first saw Hunter as a late child or in very early adolescence (the time window when one’s first viewing ideally should be) though not upon its original release. Therefore, I was kind of surprised when I learned later just what a commercial flop and even recipient of iffy reviews it had been. This is because I had pretty vivid memories of the 1955 publicity campaign, which producer Paul Gregory — still lively and, in fact, still handsome at 90 — says distributor United Artists was incapable of mounting. The ads were what one might call confusingly dramatic (suggesting religion, murder and sex), and there was a tie-in on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that I did see at the time. Featuring Peter Graves and Shelley Winters, it’s included here in an array of bonuses that are socks-dropping even by Criterion standards. Oddly, the scene the two of them perform is one not in the film (a wife-husband visit in prison).

Graves is in prison for having committed a Depression robbery in a rural Ohio River burg, a crime that eventually gets him executed, though with the money creatively hidden. Trying to sniff it out is one of the screen’s most famous psychopaths: Robert Mitchum’s immortal woman-loathing preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on competing hands, a charlatan who marries the now widowed Winters and tries to force her children (Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce) into telling him where the money is. Except for the Chapin youngster, Mitchum has the entire town snookered — especially the town’s resident pious biddie (Evelyn Venable, a stitch of a performance), who brags that during sex, she simply thinks of her canning.

There’s a trove of background information on this release, but the centerpiece is the miracle Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter — assembled, with the help of Nancy Mysel, by Robert Gitt (retired, though still freelancing, from the UCLA Film & Television Archive). Gitt began the 2 hour, 40 minute documentary when he was at the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., and one of my first memories of working there as theater programmer was talking to him about this arduous project in its earliest days (before expanding to an off-and-on marathon that spanned decades before this achievement went on the festival circuit in the early 2000’s).

Narrated with authority by Gitt, who even offers detailed cast bios, it was assembled from the complete filmed records Laughton kept of his directorial labors — footage close to unique in film history and still stored in his garage several years after his 1962 death. This is probably one of the few times you’ll ever get to see scenes featuring an actor who was eventually replaced because he was just wasn’t cutting it (the role James Gleason eventually took over). And something you learn here in spades is that Laughton’s alleged loathing of the child actors (it’s been said that he wasn’t wild about children in general) cannot be true, or at least very true. He is exacting but affectionate with Chapin as well as the extremely young Bruce and seems exceptionally taken with the former’s receptiveness and instincts.

As for other observations and memories gleaned from Gitt’s marvel or from the set’s additional supplements:

• A second myth has been that screenwriter James Agee (aka the greatest film critic of his era) turned in an unusable script. True, it was impossibly unwieldy at 293 pages when the standard ballpark ratio has it that one page equals one minute of screen time. But Laughton pared it down, maintained Agee’s structure, and the latter remained on the payroll throughout the production. Agee receives sole screen credit, albeit after on-screen source credit for novelist Grubb, whose remarkable sketches offered to Laughton virtually amounted to storyboards — drawings Laughton often adhered to with striking fidelity. By the way, Agee never lived to see the film because he had a fatal heart attack in a taxi at age 45 before its release.

• More than once, this release points out that Hunter developed its cult due to TV showings, and here I think it caught a break. United Artists jumped the gun on most major distributors by selling at least some of its post-1948 library to television before the ’50s even ended; by 1959, for instance, you could see The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1952) on TV, which was very unusual for major recent titles and a Very Big Deal to budding movie lovers. Gitt himself says he first saw Hunter on TV with his parents in ’59 — because they were huge Lillian Gish fans. A lot of people saw it in their own homes at a young impressionable age – and watched it every time it was re-shown. Which is how cults are born. Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (from UA) also got this kind of head start — as did Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Allied Artists), which made a fairly quick jump to TV as well.

• Gish had gotten word that Laughton had been screening every old D.W. Griffith movie (talk about palpable screen influences) he could get the Museum of Modern Art or anywhere else to show during Hunter’s prep. Gish had heard about this even before Laughton’s call, and it may have been a factor in getting her to come out of unofficial retirement to play the “protector” of Chapin and Bruce — a service her character performs for several other children as well. Gish opens the film, and she is one of the reasons you know within about 20 seconds that this is going to be one great (and original) movie. After this, she doesn’t show up until maybe the three-quarters point, at which point the picture soars into even more of an advanced gear. Invaluable, she is simultaneously angelic and a woman who looks as if she’d be very comfortable pumping some buckshot into Mitchum’s behind.

• For all the times I have seen this movie — and it is probably one of my all-time top 10 and certainly in my top 20 — I had never noticed that Corey Allen plays one of the two teenaged loiterers trying to hit on the oldest of Gish’s wards (Gloria Castillo) when they all journey into town. This means that Allen, who died earlier this year, appeared in the year’s two best movies (and two of the greatest American movies of all time) within a couple months of each other. The other was as Buzz, the high school hood whose souped-up car flies into some of Southern California’s darkest Big Drink when he engages in Rebel without a Cause’s long folkloric “Chickie Run.”

• Someone on one of the extras says something with which I’ve always agreed: that next to Laughton’s, the most important contribution to Hunter was made by composer Walter Schumann, who gave the film a singular mix of nightmare-inducing brass and choral beauty. Given what Mitchum’s greatest performance and cinematographer Stanley Cortez mammoth contribution, this is really saying something, but I think Schumann’s music brings more to the Laughton-Cortez images than are even there already. Before it was finally issued on CD, the RCA soundtrack LP to Hunter was selling for $100 in used record stores of my acquaintance in the early 1980s.

• Like a lot of great cinematographers, Cortez lent his talents to a lot of schlock. But if you had to name American cinema’s two most distinctive black-and-white movies ever from, say, a list of five, Hunter and Cortez’s The Magnificent Ambersons would be among the preliminary suggestions. Not too surprisingly, Cortez rated the latter’s Orson Welles and Laughton as the standout directors for whom he worked.

The other extras include a group commentary by Gitt, critic F.X. Sweeney (getting to be a welcome presence on DVDs), Preston Neal Jones (author of a book on both the novel and film) and director Terry Sanders, the second-unit director who shot the Oho River material. There’s also a remembrance by actor/writer Simon Callow (who penned an excellent Laughton bio many years ago), ‘A’-list critical essays, Grubb’s sketches and Leonard Maltin’s interview of Gitt before the documentary begins. Continuing its recent jump into the cream of the United Artists library (think Paths of Glory as well), Criterion has just announced Sweet Smell of Success as a February release. Think about it: James Wong Howe shooting on the streets of ‘50s mid-town Manhattan plus Criterion quality control. As Little Richard would say, “Ooo-eeeee!”


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