The Night of the Hunter 4K

by Glenn Erickson Sep 12, 2023

Strikingly original & endlessly creative, Charles Laughton’s solo directorial effort continues to stun audiences with the expressive power of pure cinema. It’s an ‘American Primitive’ mix of storybook candor and nightmare imagery; the performances are styled after an earlier era of direct drama. Davis Grubb’s theme is more relevant than ever — the conflict of Good versus Evil dares to align Evil with revivalist hysteria. The 4K disc includes a Tim Lucas commentary and illuminating input from a surviving cast member.

The Night of the Hunter 4K
4K Ultra HD
KL Studio Classics
1955 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date May 30, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Arden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Gloria Castilo, Sally Jane Bruce.
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Production Designer: Hilyard Brown
Second Unit Director: Terry Sanders
Film Editor: Robert Golden
Original Music: Walter Schumann
Written by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb
Produced by Paul Gregory
Directed by
Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton’s unique film achievement came to the 4K Ultra HD format earlier this year, and we can’t let the opportunity to talk about it slip by. After reading about it forever, we finally saw a 1980s revival at Sherman Torgan’s New Beverly Cinema. United Artists had struck a new print; the night was a major revelation. I remember talking it up to a Cannon employee suspicious of ‘weird’ recommendations. But the next morning I received thanks — she said she finally understood what the power of cinema was all about, divorced from fads and fashions.

Our review is basically a reprint, ending in an extended re-recommendation and a reminder that there’s even more important Physical Media on this title to be seen.

Oh, and be careful which disc you purchase. This recent KL Studio Classics release is 4K Ultra HD Only: the second Blu-ray disc in the set only carries featurette extras.


The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by Charles Laughton, still takes audiences by surprise. Its jarring blend of Southern Gothic mania, silent film technique and expressionist effects is unlike that of any movie made before or since. Davis Grubb’s disturbing source novel portrays a rural America preyed upon by the forces of twisted religion. Mr. Laughton and his screenwriter James Agee infuse their story of a murderer posing as a preacher with visual and aural poetry, qualities largely absent in movies of 1955.

The movie ignores some of Hollywood’s storytelling conventions, to instead challenge its audience on an emotional, primal level — one would think Samuel Fuller would worship this show. A blast of music transforms a charging locomotive into a demon from hell, representing as it does the malevolent ‘preacher’ Harry Powell (Mitchum), a wolf in sheep’s clothing who uses a switchblade for a cross. Harry meets his match in Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), an angel of goodness who protects orphans lost in the Great Depression. Miss Cooper is a tough old mother hen. She addresses curious, soulful nuggets of wisdom directly to the camera:

“Children are Man at his strongest. They abide.”

Haven’t seen the movie?  Consider waiting to do so before reading further. The review-essay needs to discuss it in detail.

The frightening story is told partially from the point of view of small children. Hiding behind his Bible, serial killer Harry Powell charms Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), hoping to discover where her dead husband has hidden a cache of stolen money. Soon after their marriage, Powell sets to extracting the secret of the money from Willa’s children. Tiny Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is willing to accept her new daddy, but the older John (Billy Chapin) sees through Powell’s deception and holds firm. Willa thinks John is clinging to the bad example of his father, executed in prison. John soon feels isolated, persecuted. At the local confectionary, the nosy Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) considers John a bad boy who “needs a dose of salts.”


The unenthusiastic advertising campaign for The Night of the Hunter promised a racy thriller. Ticket buyers must have been surprised to find an arty concoction stacked with exaggerated sets and stylized performances, that didn’t look or sound like any other movie of the 1950s, and did little business. Revived in the ’80s, it became a buried cinematic treasure, a nonconformist masterpiece that refuses to age.

No film has come near Laughton and production designer Hilyard Brown’s stylized representation of Depression-era Ohio. The dreamlike nighttime landscape is represented by artificial cutout hills and twinkling stars that resemble graphics from a child’s storybook. The frame house of the newly widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) appears to be only a few feet deep, while an entire neighboring farm is likewise rendered in only two dimensions, like a child’s diorama. The daytime scenes are more realistic yet present equally disturbing social content. 1950s audiences weren’t accustomed to images of hungry orphans begging door to door for castoff potatoes, let alone small children threatened by a sex murderer.

Harry Powell has tattooed the words ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ on his fingers to illustrate his insultingly simplistic dramatization of the conflict between Good and Evil. Talk about ‘classic appropriation’: filmmaker Spike Lee made Powell’s ‘right hand left hand’ business a central motif for his drama Do the Right Thing.  Much more risky for the revival-mad 1950s, Laughton and screenwriter James Agee dared to portray down-home religion as a malign influence for conformism, hypocrisy and the suppression of sexuality. Were some audiences offended?  The critique is 100% on target.


The lost graces of early filmmaking art.

The movie evokes comparisons with classic cinematic forms unknown to most of the 1950 audience. One acknowledged influence are the silent classics of D.W. Griffith, as seen in the harmonious farm scenes and the presence of Griffith’s iconic star Lillian Gish. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez ends one scene with a classic Griffith iris transition, performed in-camera. Yet the movie also uses helicopter shots, which in 1955 were also not the norm for Hollywood fare.

Laughton contrasts his bucolic daylight images with elements more at home in expressionist horror. Harry Powell’s hulking silhouette is a Caligari– like nightmare, whether looming on a hilltop or drifting across the screen on the back of a mule, singing a hymn. The Harper basement is a pit surrounded by darkness and connected to reality by a diagonal staircase. When Harry is overtaken by the rapture of the “religion that God and me worked out betwixt us,” Willa’s bedchamber transforms into a perverse church, complete with a steeple formed by stabbing slivers of light.    Harry raises his fist to the moonlight, charged with demonic resolve.

The Night of the Hunter’s stylized performances take most audiences by surprise. Robert Mitchum’s insane Harry Powell charms women with his matinee idol looks. Powell need only bat his eyes at the love-starved Ruby (Gloria Castilo) and she’ll do whatever he wants. The charlatan silences critics with his false piety. The more outrageous the holy talk, the more acceptance he finds with the unthinking faithful. Evelyn Varden’s wickedly accurate Icey Spoon is a domineering church matron; her pea-brained endorsement aids and abets Powell in his dirty work.


Filmmakers tread on thin ice when they put children in jeopardy.

Powell finds children less easy to manipulate. Little Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is a difficult conquest — Powell fails to fully undermine her loyalty to her brother John (Billy Chapin). In the end he resorts to threats of violence. These scenes were surely a major turn-off for the ’50s audience. Five year-old Sally Jane appears genuinely surprised when Mitchum talks tough, and when he flicks a switchblade right in front of her nose, her reaction seems completely spontaneous. What kind of stage mother would trust her child with a Hollywood actor with a reputation of an unpredictable bad boy?

The most disturbing content comes straight from Davis Grubb’s novel. Harry Powell torments Willa Harper with guilt for her dead husband’s crimes and shame for her own ‘filthy’ sexual thoughts. Deprived of her better judgment and numbed into submission, Willa denies the obvious truth, even when hearing Harry’s threats with her own ears. She instead retreats into a fantasy of religious bliss/mania. The mix of sex, violence and religious hysteria is potent stuff.

The criticism of predatory revivalism and puritan repression doesn’t stop with the character of Harry Powell. Icey Spoon and her self-righteous ilk are easily converted into a drunken lynch mob. This assault on degraded religious values might have attracted controversy had audiences seen The Night of the Hunter in large numbers. It was in fact rejected for exhibition in some parts of the South.

But Grubb, Laughton and Agee posit a positive alternative to the Bible-thumping malice of Harry Powell — the gentle Christian influence of Miss Cooper. Gish’s Miss Cooper forgoes paternal authoritarianism, teaching instead by example. She stresses the value of understanding and forgiveness. She can be a nag but she also possesses natural wisdom. When her errant ward Ruby tearfully confesses that she’s been skipping sewing lessons to ‘go with men,’ Miss Cooper offers sympathy, not condemnation: “You were just looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how.”


The wonderful Miss Cooper might as well be a humanist Van Helsing to Harry Powell’s fundamentalist Count Dracula. Their violent confrontation is expressed in the imagery of the supernatural: a shotgun on Cooper’s lap might as well be a silver crucifix. Little John has no trouble seeing the truth behind Powell: “Don’t he never SLEEP?”

The Night of the Hunter creates its own cosmos, with an absent father, a protective mother figure and a horrid devil. The most inspired sequence is the children’s desperate flight into the dark nighttime forest — which becomes weirdly protective. They find a brief respite on the river, suspended between the water and the twinkling stars. A host of nocturnal animals watch them from the riverbanks. Do the rabbits, frogs and turtles represent an indifferent nature?  The music and the visual effects say otherwise. John and Pearl are weak and vulnerable, but their essential strength forms a momentary shield from fear. Pearl sings a beautiful, eerie tune that appears to transport their skiff past the spider’s web and away from Powell. Laughton’s artistry delivers rare sensations . . .

Producer Paul Gregory remembers that United Artists took one look and decided that Hunter was too arty to be a commercial contender. They were right in a broad sense, but a customized art-film release could have turned the movie into a cultural event. In the postwar years United Artists had the distributor of numerous independent productions with content deemed uncommercial, whether politically controversial (So Ends Our Night), socially critical (The Underworld Story) or stylistically radical (Kiss Me Deadly). Charles Laughton was reportedly discouraged by the commercial failure of his labor of love, which found recognition as a classic only long after he was gone.



The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD of The Night of the Hunter 4K is just what the home theater enthusiast would want. The disc is said to be a new HDR/Dolby Vision remaster by Kino from a 4K scan of the original negative. As the previous Blu-ray release (2010) was excellent, it may take an expert with instruments to show the difference to the average viewer — when the 4K arrive in May, several Home Theater notables didn’t see an appreciable difference. However, if you’re set up for 4K and would like this in your collection, you can’t go wrong.

The previous Blu was mastered at a 1:66 aspect ratio, and Kino chooses a slightly wider 1:85, which by ’55 was more or less the theatrical standard. But the movie shares with Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove the odd feeling that some shots really work better in the old 1:37 Academy ratio.  Just like Kubrick’s wide interiors of the War Room, a number of Hunter’s more radical images look best when seen open-matte flat — the wider view of the Harper basement, the murder scene in the vaulted-ceiling bedroom.


But the bulk of the movie really wants to be widescreen — there’s ample dead space above and below when projected flat. For one interior night farm scene an open matte peers right over the top of the cyclorama backing, showing the rafters of the sound stage. Criterion has chosen a good scan for their transfer.

Kino puts its best foot forward for extras, beginning with a full commentary by Tim Lucas. As expected Tim takes the discussion in interesting interpretive directions, helping to distinguish the disc from the earlier Criterion special edition. As no feature transfer is on the second Blu-ray disc, Tim’s talk is restricted to those with 4K players, as is Kino’s isolated Music & Effects track.


That isolated M&E may be the closest we post-’55 fans will get to an original soundtrack for Hunter; I remember collector and expert Bruce Kimmel once describing a rare LP release as a favorite childhood treasure. At every step, Walter Schumann’s incredibly apt music complements and accentuates Laughton’s eccentric approach, and adds a Sense of Wonder of its own. That the mysterious Nature montage is one of the beautiful-eerie scenes in film history is due in large part to Schumann’s music. The bright Christmas underscore for the final scene in the Cooper house often strikes viewers as awkward. But Miss Cooper’s Christian charity and Bible Story homilies can evoke great joy: “They abide, and they endure.”

Lord save little children. The wind blows, and the rains are cold. Yet they abide.

The Blu-ray additions seem rather slight, but each of three featurettes has its appeal. Ernest Dickerson’s general appreciation is acceptable; he introduces his interest with the Spike Lee connection. Artist Joe Coleman seems unrelated to the movie until he tells the story of ‘Harry Powers,’ an historical murderer who seems to have inspired the film’s fictional killer. Coleman’s talk is something of a ramble. The featurette chooses to light him like a Horror host, in a gothic setting.


The best and most surprising featurette gives us the memories of actress Kathy Garver. She played one of the story’s small kids but also doubled for featured child performer Sally Jane Bruce (  )  in long shots, or almost any scene where she could be substituted. As shown in outtakes from the film, little Sally Jane was chosen for her voice and looks, but had to be delicately handled to deliver the performance Laughton needed. Kathy Garver was already a seasoned trouper and could take direction for more complicated action.

The older Criterion disc also offered no original Trailer, which is included here. It carries a UK censor card up front and seems complete, although early shots really seem to lack a narration voiceover. In truth The Night of the Hunter is simply not compatible with older Hollywood ideas of film promotion — its posters and trailer really don’t work. The trailer tries to make a selling point of the film’s producer, Paul Gregory. Gregory and Charles Laughton were well into pre-planning their next film The Naked and the Dead, to also star Robert Mitchum, when Laughton left the package, and never directed another film.

An unusual recommendation.

We need to again mention the older Criterion Blu-ray, which carries an ‘essential’ extra. UCLA’s Bob Gitt found and assembled a full two hours of The Night of the Hunter outtakes retained by Elsa Lanchester. I describe them at length in the earlier review. Robert Mitchum is wholly professional and cooperative. He and Laughton collaborate to draw the right performances from the child actors, with remarkable tenderness. Little Sally Jane Bruce is not an easy subject, but Mitchum’s patience seems unlimited. So much for the idea that the actor was careless or uninvolved. This is one show that deserves shelf space for two separate releases.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Night of the Hunter 4K
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary by Tim Lucas
Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack
Interview featurettes:
Love and Hate with Ernest Dickerson
Little Lambs with actress Kathy Garver
Hing, Hang, Hung with artist Joe Coleman
Theatrical Trailer (Blu-ray).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray (special features only) in Keep case
September 11, 2023

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Here’s Joe Dante on The Night of the Hunter:

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Lewis Motisher

Insightful review of a great movie. One thing though, you say “The older Criterion disc also offered NO original Trailer…” I think you meant “The older Criterion disc also offered AN original Trailer” which your earlier review stated WAS included.

Chas Speed

I can’t imagine anyone NOT noticing the improvement of the 4K!


Shelly Winters’ hair streaming in the water is one of the great chilling visions in cinema. (The still here doesn’t do it.)


Jeez. I’d stay away from IN COLD BLOOD if I were you!

Darth Egregious

Meat Loaf also sports “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckle tattoos in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a very early reference to this extraordinary film.

Dick Dinman

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is #7 on my list of the 10 greatest
films of all time and Mitchum’s performance: don’t get me


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