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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/28/00

The Night of the Hunter
1955 (2000) - MGM/UA

review by Florian Kummert of The Digital Bits

The Night of the Hunter Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B-/C-

Specs and Features

93 mins, NR, full frame (1.37:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, booklet, film-themed menu screens, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English & French (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned

"Ah, little lad... you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of Good and Evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends... the hand of love."

"Chill…dren," the preacher shouts. With fear in their eyes, the boy and his little sister hide behind the apple barrel in the basement. Slowly, the door on top of the long, wooden staircase opens, and the shadow of the tall man with the huge hat creeps down the stairs. "Chill…dren! Where are you?" This classic scene of the American cinema has inspired myriads of imitators. Charles Laughton's 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter (the only film the British actor and Broadway director ever completed) counts among the milestones of Hollywood's film noir era. It's an odd film, hard to categorize. The best summary is that it's a bold, expressionistic experiment in visual and narrative presentation. Initially a critical and commercial failure, the movie is now regarded as a masterpiece, showing Robert Mitchum in his most powerful performance.

Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a sinister, hymn-chanting "preacher" with tattooed hands. One has the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on the knuckles, and the other has the letters L-O-V-E. Powell roams the countryside, stealing and killing. This psychopath abhors sexuality and all feminine things. He leaves a trail of dead women in his wake. Thrown into prison for a car theft, Powell discovers that his fellow inmate has stolen $10,000, and hid the money with his children. After the inmate's execution, Powell gets out of jail, approaches the dead man's widow (Shelly Winters) and, in spinning a clever web of lies and religious hypocrisy, wins her heart and marries her. The two children, John and Pearl, don't trust their uncanny new father and his nosy inquiries. But soon their mother will be dead, killed inside the bedroom (a weird, crypt-like, triangular set design). By the way, the shot of the dead mother sitting at the wheel of a car at the bottom of a river, her throat slashed, her hair drifting with the seaweed, is a stroke of genius. The children manage to escape their new caretaker, fleeing down the river in a tiny boat, while Harry follows them along the shore. The whole river sequence belongs with the most idiosyncratic and beautiful bits of film I've seen in a long time.

While they are pursued by the incarnation of evil on one side, the children eventually meet up with a human "angel", Lillian Gish (the silent movie era star of D.W. Griffith's epics) playing Rachel, an elderly woman and guardian of orphans. She takes up their fight against the determined murderer, and a battle of sorts plays out. The film ultimately ends up becoming a fairy tale in some respects. Laughton himself has said that the film was a "nightmarish Mother Goose fable."

The movie is masterfully shot, with exquisite lighting, brilliant use of fore and background, and a dream-like set design. It can be frightening and humorous at the same time. Sadly, The Night of the Hunter deserves a better DVD treatment. The print MGM used for this DVD displays constant specks. At times, the full-frame picture (the film was shot in 1.37:1 Academy ratio) is very soft, with some frames (especially the aerial shots) ending up very "jittery" looking. The mono sound won't win any awards either. A new, carefully cleaned print should have been commissioned for a classic like this.

The bonus materials included on this disc hardly deserve a mention. You get a theatrical trailer (with a scratchy picture) and that's it. Oh yeah... a "collectible booklet" is also included, which is nothing but two pages of production notes. No cast bios, no commentary... nothing. I would have hoped for more.

Time has shown that The Night of the Hunter is an exceptional film. Time will also show that this DVD is a disappointment. That's a shame... but it's one we'll have to live with for now.

Florian Kummert
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