Showing posts with label Charles Laughton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Laughton. Show all posts

18 October 2013

The Night Of The Hunter (1955) Blu-Ray Review

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BD Release Date:
28th October 2013 (UK)
Arrow Academy
Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish,
The Night of the Hunter On Blu-ray [Amazon]

Jeffrey Couchman wrote in his book The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film that “Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is at once a fairy tale, a horror film, an allegory, a thriller, a mixture of realism and stylization that even now is hard to define”. The Night of the Hunter was the only film Laughton ever directed, even though he is sometimes compared to Orson Welles because of his work as an actor, theatre director and this film.

The Night of the Hunter was made during the tail end of the film noir period and is often considered a film noir even though it doesn’t fit all of the characteristics of that genre—for example, it is not an urban film but city settings are usually said to be a key component of film noir.
Laughton had been doing a one-man reading tour that was very successful, and had been a stage and film actor for some years. He was working with producer Paul Gregory, who “I wanted to bring Charlie into focus as a top [film] director and eventually quit performing”. Gregory passed the galleys of the script on to Loughton, who agreed it was a good choice as his first film. Gregory had bought the rights to the book before it was published The film is about a self-appointed Preacher, Rev. Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, who becomes a father figure to two children whose father (Ben Harper, played by Peter Graves) he knew in prison. He starts a relationship with their mother because he is after hidden money that his cellmate told him about. The father had been sentenced to hang for taking part in a robbery. Importantly he only has one clue to help him find it, a Bible verse: “and a child shall lead them.” It is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, which was inspired by a true story.

The Library of Congress has placed The Night of the Hunter in the National Film Registry in the US, and it has merited a release in the Criterion Collection which specializes in “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”; It got decent reviews at the time, and it had very good production values despite a medium-sized budget ($795,000) about double the typical film noir, partly because Mitchum was a very big name The way it was shot has been influential on many filmmakers since. It was not a massive disaster, but there were financial losses. United Artists sold off the TV rights very fast to try to make some money. This made it one of the earliest films to be rediscovered because it ran on television, similar to what happened with the film The Manchurian Candidate also released by United Artists. It was later remade for TV.

The author of the original book, Davis Grubb, did a lot of surreal, expressionistic drawings for the film and these probably had a strong influence on Laughton’s ideas about what the film should look like. “Although Laughton never talked about expressionism with the crew… Laughton’s constant point of view was to project the tale of a very real preacher against a surrealistic fabric,” Jeffrey Couchman wrote in his book. “Dennis Sanders remembers that Laughton talked to him about creating a film in which each of the actions had to be larger than they would be in life, not trying to create a realistic picture but an expressionistic picture.” However there is no record that he actually studied expressionist film in his research for Night of the Hunter. He did screen The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Greed but the director Laughton looked to the most was silent film director D.W. Griffith. Griffith was the director who invented most early editing techniques so most directors will be referencing him intentionally or unintentionally. His lighting techniques were also very influential.

To make Laughton’s vision happen, production designer Hilyard Brown created stylized sets, and the cinematographer Stanley Cortez played up light and shadow to create mood. For example, the scene in which the Preacher kills the children’s mother Willa uses visuals that create a non-realistic mood. The room is established using a medium shot and looks realistic at first. However the room has a peaked roof that makes it look like a church. There is more religious symbolism, where a doorway is lit to look something like an altar, and long shots show the bedroom where she is killed lit like a cathedral.

The religious imagery works on three levels: a) it’s ironic because the Preacher is actually evil, b) it conveys the point of view of both Willa and Preacher, and c) Willa believes her murder will be her salvation. What the viewer sees is meant to be how the Preacher conceives of the scene in his twisted mind. Another example is the scene in which the children escape the Preacher in a rowboat. You see the Preacher coming after the children from their point of view as he is trying to get through bushes and then the water with a knife in his hand. A two-shot of the children in the boat cuts to a long shot of the boat in the river under a sky of obviously fake stars. Laughton said he wanted this sequence to look like a photo book and it serves as “a signal that we have entered a universe of abstracted reality” said Couchman in his book. Roger Ebert has also written about this scene: “the masterful nighttime river sequence uses giant foregrounds of natural details, like frogs and spider webs, to underline a kind of biblical progression as the children drift to eventual safety.”

The part of the film where they are on the river is also silent so it is a really obvious example of the influence of German expressionist silent films on Laughton. Like in films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Laughton uses sets that are obviously unreal to create feelings. Couchman wrote “Laughton distorts reality to project a childs-eye view of the world” The film was shot almost entirely in a studio not on location. As in the case of Frances Ford Coppola’s film One From the Heart, this technique adds a layer of artificiality to the film. It was not an uncommon technique at the time, but especially at that time in the film noir genre this was unusual—Kiss Me Deadly was a more typical example, as a location film in which the location is essential to the film in the same way that the artificiality of The Night of the Hunter is vital to its theme.

Another influence on the look of the film was the classic horror and science fiction films that Laughton acted in, such as Island of Lost Souls, Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as the Universal horror films, especially Frankenstein and Dracula. Laughton uses some shots that are similar to the ones used in these types of films to set up a fearful feeling in the audience. Cortez had worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons before making this film and later worked with Sam Fuller on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. He had met Laughton when he took over cinematography on Man on the Eiffel Tower. He was a very meticulous cinematographer—Welles had called him a “criminally slow cameraman” but he worked fairly quickly on this film from all acounts. Cortez said “of all the directors I ever worked with only two understood light: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton”.

Many shots are from a child’s eye view because it is essentially told from the point of view of John, the boy, so this makes it clear without the character or a narrator having to say so. It also helps you identify with this character because you are seeing events through his eyes most of the time.

The film is very much ahead of it's time and Couchman said “For viewers schooled in the films of the 60s and 70s, The Night of the Hunter appears less peculiar than it did on its first release". Another writer one wrote “Laughton’s use of typical film narrative but with arthouse narrative strategies techniques would not seem as strange to a viewer who has seen a post-French new wave gangster”.

In conclusion, looking at the way shots, lighting, sets and the characters appearance has been set up by the director and the people working with him makes it clear that there is more to creating a really powerful film than just a good script. Because Laughton thought through all these details thoroughly, the film works on several levels and has a fairy tale/horror quality that makes it a more artistic film than it would have been if it had been done as just a crime story. It is one of the most beautiful films to look at ever made and features such a great performance from Robert Mitchum in probably his most iconic role. Arrow Video has done a very fine blu-ray transfer loaded with lots of bonus features including 2 and a half hours of making of footage.


Ian Schultz