The American Society of Cinematographers

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Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kazan Collection
Complete Metropolis
Night of the Hunter
ASC Close-Up
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Blu-ray Edition
1.66:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Digital Monaural LPCM 1.0
The Criterion Collection, $49.95    

On a sunny afternoon, youngsters John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sarah Jane Bruce) play on the lawn of their rural home as they hear their father’s car coasting toward them. Both children are frightened when they see fire in Ben Harper’s (Peter Graves) eyes and blood on his shirt. Ben quickly explains to his children they need to hide the $10,000 he has just stolen for their futures. As the authorities arrive, father makes son and daughter swear they will never tell where the money is hidden. As Ben is pulled away from the crying children and taken into custody, his confused wife, Willa (Shelley Winters), arrives.

Months later, after Ben has been hanged for his crimes, the grieving Harpers are visited by traveling preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who explains he counseled Ben on Death Row. The preacher claims to want to take suspicion away from the Harper family, explaining “Brother Ben” secretly admitted to him he had thrown the stolen money into the river. Relieved she can no longer be accused of knowing where the money is, Willa takes a fancy to the pious preacher. Young John, however, suspects the preacher is a liar, maybe a dangerous one.

John's suspicion grows as Powell corners him and his sister with questions about the money whenever their smitten mother is out of earshot. The boy notices how easily the preacher manipulates people, especially Willa. When Powell and Willa marry, John realizes it is only a matter of time before “Daddy” Powell becomes violent over the missing money. When events escalate, the children have no choice but to run away and, using a rowboat, try to escape their new “daddy.”

In 1955, producer Paul Gregory asked actor Charles Laughton to try his hand directing a film. Gregory had purchased the rights to Davis Grubb's chilling novel The Night of the Hunter and believed Laughton would be able to balance the story's unusual mix of horror, whimsy and poetic imagery. Laughton put together an exceptional creative team, including screenwriter James Agee and director of photography Stanley Cortez, ASC.

In a supplement on this new Blu-ray release, Cortez recalls his approach to the film was highly collaborative; he learned a great deal watching Laughton work with actors, and he, in turn, was able to teach Laughton about the camera. “It was a marvelous marriage of two talents,” says Cortez, who notes the picture was shot in 36 days. Cortez and Laughton studied the work of early silent filmmakers, particularly D.W. Griffith, because they felt that style would be a smart way to approach The Night of the Hunter. Cortez’s memorable, high-contrast cinematography is a hallmark of his incredible career, which the ASC recognized with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.

The 1080p presentation in this two-disc Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection was created from source elements restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 2001. The Night of the Hunter has a solid history on home screens, but never has it been presented looking as luminous as it does in this transfer of its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Cortez's layers of shadow and rich, expressionistic contrast have an incredible crispness without ever feeling overly enhanced with DNR. The image has a smooth, film-like quality, with generally excellent detail and contrast. The monaural audio, which suffered from noise and softness on previous home-screen presentations, also hails from the UCLA restoration, and it sounds better than ever.

Supplemental features on disc one include printed essays, a theatrical trailer, a 38-minute "making-of" documentary, a 15-minute collection of TV interviews with crew and cast members, a busy audio commentary (featuring film preservationist Robert Gitt of the UCLA Archive, film critic F.X. Feeney, 2nd-unit director Terry Sanders and author Preston Neal Jones), and an excellent 13-minute interview with Cortez from 1984. Disc two contains the fascinating 2002 documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter. This 159-minute feature, painstakingly assembled by Gitt, is a treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, offering an intimate look at the making of the film. The feature is preceded by a 17-minute interview with Gitt, conducted by Leonard Maltin.

After 50 years, The Night of the Hunter endures as one of the most unusual and personal films made in Hollywood during the 1950s. This superlative high-definition presentation would be an excellent addition to any home collection.  

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