In honor of this milestone, I have purposely selected the Criterion Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter to receive call number DVD30000.
Originally released in 1955 and directed by Charles Laughton, the film tells the story of a demented murderous preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who decides it is his calling to kill widows for their money. After a stint in jail for stealing a car, he learns of a bank robbery gone bad. The robber, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), injured and on the run, decides to hide the money. He asks that his two young children never reveal where he hid the stash. Harper is taken away and hanged, leaving behind his two young children and wife, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). Preacher Powell makes his move once he is released from jail in pursuit of the widow and the money. On his right hand, he has tattooed “LOVE” and on his left, “HATE.” As he makes acquaintance with Willa and the children, Harper’s young boy takes notice of the tattoos. The Preacher begins to stalk the children because he believes they know where their late bank-robbing father hid the money he collected. The children don’t trust the preacher and soon understand what he is after. Willa does not and buys his con game and marries him. She is soon dead. In one of the most incredible shots in the film, she is seen at the wheel of a car at the bottom of the river. The children flee and the Preacher is in pursuit. The children find refuge and protection with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a Bible-fearing elderly woman from the town.
The film opens with a dramatic reading from the Bible by Rachel Cooper in which she warns the children “to beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” (King James Version of the Bible Matthew 7:15). She continues, “ye shall know them by their fruits.”
This was an important role for Lillian Gish who last appeared in a film in 1949 before signing on to The Night of the Hunter. Other actresses had been considered for the role of Rachel, including Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, and Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife.
The filmmakers were sensitive to the censors and religious groups. They worked to make sure not to give the impression that the Preacher was an ordained minister. James Agee is credited with the screenplay. Laughton also worked with Davis Grubb on character and plot points. Grubb wrote the book of the same title (NY, 1953) on which the screenplay is based.
Since its release, the film has earned critical acclaim and a faithful following. But the film was not a financial success during its theatrical release making it difficult for Laughton to be considered for future projects. This was his first and last film as director. He continued to act in feature films following The Night of the Hunter delivering memorable performances in Witness for the Prosecution, Spartacus, Advise and Consent, and Galileo.
In later appreciations, Rogert Ebert called The Night of the Hunter one of the greatest of all American films. He noted it never received the attention it deserved. A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, looked back on the film several years ago and described it as “a hybrid of a folk tale and a film noir, but true to its own vivid and haunting reality.”
The film had its World Premiere in Des Moines, Illinois on July 26, 1955, and opened in New York on September 29, 1955.
In 1992, the film was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
The Criterion Blu-ray includes a number of interesting special features. A short film entitled The Making of The Night of the Hunter, Simon Callow on Charles Laughton, and an excerpt from the Ed Sullivan Show (September 25, 1955 episode) in which cast members perform a deleted scene. There are also hours of outtakes and behind the scenes footage.
Other Butler Media milestones…
- Man With a Movie Camera (1929)– DVD001
- Cleopatra (1963)– DVD10000
- Without Reservations (1946) — DVD20000
The Night of the Hunter, DVD30000, is available from the Butler Media Research Collection located in Butler Reserves, 208 Butler.
Nancy Friedland, Librarian for Film Studies and Performing Arts