by Tony Dayoub
This week brings us a few wonderful Blu-ray releases, two of which feature Charles Laughton at his best. One stars the portly British actor in his most iconic role. The other showcases his filmmaking talents and might be the most essential release of 2010. Let's start with that one.
Laughton's only directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter (1955), is a spooky fairy tale pitting evil preacher-cum-con-man Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in perhaps his most iconic role) against quirky, but big-hearted, Miz Cooper (Lillian Gish) for the souls of young John and Pearl Harper. Criterion's release rightly elevates the film, neglected in previous DVD releases, to its rightful place in the pantheon of American cinema. First, the transfer was taken from the original 35mm negative, and is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio for the first time, its mono soundtrack taken from a 2001 restoration. The Blu-ray highlights Stanley Cortez's stunning high-key lighting in the nighttime scenes, and the crisp texture Laughton sought to duplicate from directing pioneer D. W. Griffith's silents in the daytime sequences.
The bifurcated nature of Hunter's visuals is reflected in its story where the binary of good vs. evil manifests itself in many ways, from Powell's tattooed knuckles—one hand reading "Love," the other "Hate"—to the schism which occurs midway through the story, when John and Pearl's mother (Shelley Winters) exits the tale, leaving the children at the mercy of Mitchum's oft-times clownish predator. Beginning with an iris shot—antiquated even by 50s standards—Hunter turns from a backwoods noir centered on Powell's search for some loot hidden by his late jailmate—and the kids' father (Peter Graves)—to an expressionistic take on Hansel and Gretel. This turn of events gives way to an odd, dreamlike break in the film when the children escape the preacher on a boat floating down a river in a brief journey akin to a child's version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. One can see how this influential sequence with its eerie score and deep focus juxtaposition of forest animals with the young fugitives has served as a touchstone to future filmmakers as diverse as Tim Burton and David Lynch.
Sadly, the poor reception Laughton's debut film received ensured the insecure thespian would never attempt a follow-up. But anyone doubting the man's consummate professionalism need only look at the most stunning extra on this Blu-ray package, and perhaps in any release ever. On the second disc, there is a 2 1/2 hour feature, Charles Laughton Directs "The Night of the Hunter", a movie composed from Hunter's outtakes presented in the film's chronological order. This film dispels many of the rumors that Laughton was impatient or brusque with his child actors. It demonstrates the high regard in which he held his star, Mitchum, who gets almost no direction from the perfectionist director. And it also foregrounds his difficult working relationship with Winters, with Laughton forcing her to repeat take after take in a way that recalls Kubrick's browbeating of Shelley Duvall during the making of The Shining (1980). Winters had been one of Laughton's most promising students before acheiving stardom a few years earlier, so one wonders if perhaps a domineering director was simply putting his loyal disciple in a state of perpetual unease similar to what Kubrick hoped to elicit from Duvall. Whatever the case, this feature, as a supplement to the rest of the bountiful Blu-ray package put together by Criterion is a must for any cinephile with a scholarly bent. But be forewarned, the staggering amount of extras contained here deconstruct the The Night of the Hunter to such a degree it largely demystifies the pleasantly enigmatic movie.
Admittedly, Criterion's splendid Blu-ray is a hard act to follow, but Warner Home Video acquits itself rather well with its release, the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. The movie is gripping despite one's familiarity with its well known story (this is the first of three versions). This is mostly attributable to the triumvirate of lead actors, all nominated for Best Actor awards, undoubtedly splitting the vote and leading to the creation of the Best Supporting Actor category. Clark Gable is immensely likable (without his mustache) as the First Officer and head mutineer, Fletcher Christian. Franchot Tone almost steals the show as first-time seaman, Midshipman Roger Byam. But neither can eclipse Laughton in his signature role as the sadistic Captain Bligh ("Mister Chris-TIAN!").
This was my first time seeing Mutiny in its entirety, and I went into it believing the flamboyant Laughton was going to ham it up, a quality of performing I don't necessarily have an issue with. But I was surprised to see the level of nuance he bestows on his broadly characterized monster. Yes, he takes a perverse pleasure in exacting revenge on disobedient shiphands. However, he also betrays a loving admiration for those who stick by him once he is ejected from the Bounty, becoming an inspiring father figure to these starving, sunburned boatmates as they fight to survive in the open water. And once disconnected from the ship, and his command, his appearance at poor Byams' court martial betrays the fact that Bligh is out of his element when surrounded by civilized men. Here, the patrician Byams overshadows the smallish Bligh (who rose up through the ranks), and one almost feels sorry for the "class struggle" Bligh must have endured to get where he is. Almost.
Warner's Blu-ray is also a clean, gorgeous transfer from an original negative. The extras do seem somewhat thin considering the acclaim this movie received at the time of its release, but this could be due to its age. There is a fascinating vintage featurette on the descendants of the mutineers who populate Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. And the digibook packaging is a nice little keepsake containing a wealth of photographs from director Frank Lloyd's archives.