Tuesday, December 28, 2010

American Masterpiece

A friend gave me the new Criterion release of The Night of the Hunter, which was the only film directed by Charles Laughton and if you’ve never seen this masterpiece and even if you have, you must see this edition. The transfer of course is perfect, and besides this brilliant film, which is part fairy tale and part gothic horror there is an extra 2 1/2” hour documentary which is a treasure trove of rushes, that somehow survived the years, thanks to Elsa Lanchester who kept the boxes and boxes of these clips no doubt in the garage. Finally assembled and shown at film festivals around the world, we now have this amazing footage at our fingertips (in a restored digital transfer), and this might easily be the most exciting movie find ever. The rushes pretty much cover the making of the whole film. Throughout the documentary we can hear Charles Laughton (and sometimes see him) giving directions to the cast, and at times I thought he was somewhat abusive to the children. In fact in one pivotal scene the young boy played by Billy Chapin has to show aguish and double over with grief. Laughton to get the effect needed actually smacks Chapin in the stomach, which is shocking to see. We often hear of behind the scene stories of how directors got kids to react, but here we have visible proof. There are take after take of some scenes, and poor Shelley Winters had to do one scene over 9 or so times, which we also get to see. At times the documentary was tedious, what with seeing the same scene done over and over, but there is so much fascinating material that the tedious parts are worth it. My story with this movie goes back to the original release back in 1955 when I was 8 years old, and my uncle one night took me to our Neighborhood Loew’s Theatre. We went to see the Dean Martin Jerry Lewis movie that was the top of a double bill and we stayed for The Night Of The Hunter which haunted me all through the years. As a kid it filled me with fear and dread, and in later years after seeing it time and time again I came to realize what a great original film it was. Poorly marketed and badly reviewed the film was a flop and Laughter never directed another movie. Years later I had the opportunity to sell an amazing archive of drawings that Davis Grubb had done to help Laughton with the look and feel of the movie. I sold it to a famous film director and some of them turn up in one of the extras. This is easily the dvd release of the year.



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