In search of stolen loot, itinerant preacher Harry Powel (Robert Mitchum), who has the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles, arrives in a small Southern town where he marries then murders his former cellmate’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters) before chasing her two young children down river. But standing in his way is a elderly woman (Lillian Gish) who is prepared to protect the frightened children at all costs…
Actor/director Charles Laughton’s child’s-eye-view 1955 adaptation of Davis Grubb’s 1953 Southern Gothic novel is unique among Hollywood’s golden age of films as its expressionistic style sets it apart from the kind of movies being made in the 1950s, and this is all down to Laughton’s surrealist sets and stylised dialogue and cinematographer Stanley Cortez‘s luminous monochrome camerawork, that brilliantly evoke the silent film masterpieces of FW Murnau (of Nosferatu fame) and DW Griffith (the casting of Griffith’s muse Lillian Gish is a knowing nod).
The film, however, was commercial and critical failure, which deeply depressed Laughton (he would never again take to the director’s chair), but it has since gone on to become a bona fide American cinema classic, garnering legions of fans and always topping best-ever film lists.
There’s also Robert Mitchum, who gives a career-best performance as Harry Powell – one of fiction’s greatest villains. His woman-hating corrupt reverend turned serial killer is truly terrifying and Mitchum plays him with a nonchalant charisma that’s totally Mitchum-esque, and this was best summed up when Laughton warned the film noir legend that the character he was to play was a ‘complete shit’, at which Mitchum famously replied: ‘Present’.
If you have never seen The Night of the Hunter, then the new restoration – which is now available to own on Blu-ray and returns to UK cinemas early next year – is the perfect way to rediscover Laughton’s dark fairytale and get spellbound by Mitchum’s powerhouse performance.
THE ARROW ACADEMY RELEASE
The Blu-ray release features the 1955 film in its original aspect ratio (1.66:1) in a new digital transfer made from restored 35mm film elements, and includes a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the making of the film featuring archive material give to the American Film Institute by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester, an interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, isolated music and effects soundtrack, original theatrical trailer, reversible sleeve featuring original and new artwork by Graham Humphreys, and a collector’s booklet.
THE UK CINEMA RE-RELEASE
The new restoration of The Night of the Hunter is also back in cinemas from 17 January 2014, opening at BFI Southbank in London, as part of the continuing Gothic season, and selected cinemas nationwide.