Updated: Jun 9
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
(1) In arguably the best performances of his career, Robert Mitchum stepped away from his tough-guy persona to play the psychotic “Reverend” Harry Powell. (2) Brother and sister John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) Harper are hiding something from Preacher.
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“THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER”
4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray, 1955, unrated, adult themes, psychological intensity, implied violence
Best extra: “Hing, Hang, Hung,” a new interview with painter/performer Joe Coleman (on the Blu-ray disc)
IN HIS four-star review of “The Night of the Hunter,” Roger Ebert lists the reasons why it is “one of the greatest of all American films.”
“Compelling, frightening, and beautiful,” he wrote, it was the only film directed by Charles Laughton (1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Witness for the Prosecution”), spinning its haunting story through expressionistic, visual fantasy in an invented movie world outside conventional realism.
Then there’s the cast. Robert Mitchum (“Out of the Past”), forever the Hollywood outsider, couldn’t be further removed from his tough-guy persona as the murderous, psychotic “Reverend” Harry Powell. There’s an argument to be made that it’s his best role. Shelley Winters (“A Place in the Sun”) also gives one of her best performances as the fragile widow Willa Harper, while Lillian Gish (“Duel in the Sun”) serves as the film’s moral compass as the fiercely protective Rachel Cooper.
Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons”) was the cinematographer, Walter Schumann (“Dragnet”) wrote the score and though the screenplay, adapted from Davis Grubb’s terrific 1953 novel, is credited to James Agee (“The African Queen”), by all accounts Laughton hated it and wrote it himself.
(1) “The Night of the Hunter,” which premiered in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 26, 1955, opens with the faces of angelic children in the night sky. (2) Powell speaks with the Almighty as he travels through rural West Virginia. (3-4) A burlesque show flames his hatred.
So why did it bomb with critics and audiences? Ebert wrote that because it didn’t come with the “proper trappings,” no one knew what to make of it. Apparently, they still don’t. The American Film Institute has the movie at No. 34 among it greatest thrillers and Harry Powell at 29 on its list of greatest villains, but “The Night of the Hunter” is nowhere to be found on its 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. But there’s room for “Tootsie” and, ugh, “Titanic”?
Go figure. Or better, see for yourself because “Hunter” has been given a wonderful 4K Ultra HD upgrade for Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics collection.
Before we get to that: Powell, the fingers of his right hand tattooed with L-O-V-E and those on his left with H-A-T-E, roams the West Virginia and Ohio countryside preaching a gospel that “the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.” The preacher doesn’t save souls, he condemns them, and has left a half-dozen or so murdered women in his wake. When he’s arrested for stealing a car, he’s sent to the pen, where his cellmate is Ben Harper (Peter Graves, TV’s “Mission: Impossible”), who murdered two men, stole $10,000, and goes to the gallows without telling anyone, even Willa, where he hid it.
Upon his release, the reverend heads to Harpers’ home on the Ohio River. He has a hunch that the children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know where the money is and in short order marries the gullible Willa. Before long, he’s slit her throat and, in one of the movie world’s most unforgettable scenes, leaves her bound body in her Model T at the bottom of the river, her hair mingling in the current with the drifting seaweed. John and Pearl flee downriver in a skiff and are taken in by the Bible-fearing Mrs. Cooper.
4K Ultra HD (2023) vs. 2K Blu-ray (2010)
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested for murdering two men and stealing $10,000. (1) Sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and matted at 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the KL Studio Classics release features more clarity, deeper blacks, and more controlled highlights and mid-tones. (2) When the movie was added to The Criterion Collection, it was matted at 1.66:1 and sourced from a 2K scan of the OCN.
(1) Powell, sentenced for stealing a car and sent to the penitentiary, shows Harper his “sword” that he managed to sneak past the guards. (2&3) Upon his release, Preacher heads to the Harpers’ home and soon charms Pearl and the widowed Willa (Shelley Winters). (4) Willa leads a revival meeting with Powell and renounces her sinful life. (5) John tries to put on a brave face.
Struck from the 35mm original camera negative and framed in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, “The Night of the Hunter’s” new HDR/Dolby Vision master delivers a solid, spotless print. While the exterior shots soften now and then – especially during transition fades – detail is spot-on when the camera gets close. Blacks are deep and inky, and Cortez’s dramatic use of light, especially in the cathedral-like bedroom on Powell and Willa’s wedding night, is exceptional.
Interesting footnote: The movie was never shown theatrically in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio that was typical at the time. It was captured in the open matte format (1.33:1) so it could be matted by the theater owners in varying aspects from 1.66:1, the standard European aspect, to 1.85:1, which had become the norm in the US. The viewfinder on the 35mm camera had hash marks so the camera operator and cinematographer could see the 1.85:1 cropping that would be applied in the theater.
The 4K disc was encoded onto a 100-gigabit disc and the video averaged 80 Megabits per second to reveal a healthy dose of natural film grain.
As for audio, it’s your choice: DTS-HD Master Tracks in dual-mono and a 5.1 surround bump. I went with the mono track and it held up fine in every way -- clear dialogue, the subtle ambient sounds of croaking frogs and chirping birds, full soundtrack.
KL has come through with a solid package here, too, including a new commentary with novelist and critic Tim Lucas. There’s no question that he knows his stuff, but he tends to dwell on the obvious and often sounds like he’s reading from a script. One exception: Laughton asked Grubb to go through his novel and make sketches of scenes and characters, drawings that figured heavily in the expressionist settings created by art director Hilyard Brown.
There are also three features on the Blu-ray disc: “Little Lambs,” with actress Kathy Garver, who played one of Mrs. Cooper’s wards; “Love and Hate,” with filmmaker Ernest Dickerson (the cinematographer on Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X”), who says he returns to “Hunter” from time to time to “charge my batteries”; and “Hing, Hang, Hung,” a fine, extensive interview with painter and performer Joe Coleman.
Coleman, who talks about the real-life killer that became Harry Powell and the differences between the novel and film, says that his work is about duality -- good and evil and the corruption of the spirit and society. “The Night of the Hunter,” he says, “is always with me.” Google his paintings and you’ll see what he means.
Looking for more titles for your 4K collection? The list starts here.
(1) Willa returns to her home on the Ohio River. (2) Powell spells out how their marriage will be on their wedding night. (3) In one of the most unforgettable shots in movie history, Willa’s bound body sits in her Model T at the bottom of the river. (4&5) Terrorized by Preacher, the children hide in the cellar.
(1&2) After fleeing downriver, John lands their skiff and the children hide in a barn, but they aren’t safe – before long Preacher appears on the horizon singing hymns. (3-5) Lillian Gish plays the Bible-fearing Rachel Cooper, who takes the children in and protects them from Powell. (6&7) As resolute as Powell is evil, Mrs. Cooper keeps watch and drives Powell from her home.