dvd review: Discovery: The Night of the Hunter – 2002

It’s become commonplace to see “making-of” documentaries and promotional videos, even for crummy movies that don’t merit such attention. Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes footage for movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s is scarce, and when it exists it’s generally brief.

Thus, Robert Gitt’s presentation of rushes from Charles Laughton’s production of The Night of the Hunter (1955) at the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 11th Festival Preservation last week was a rare and glorious event.

The footage is precious for several reasons: this was the noted actor’s only directorial effort, and while it was a failure in 1955, its reputation has soared in the decades since. More pointedly, Laughton tended to keep his camera running as he coached and coaxed his actors, especially the two children who play leading roles. As a result, this is not merely raw footage of one take after another; it’s a document of how each scene evolved, and how a masterly actor shaped the—

—performances in his first effort behind the camera.

For Gitt, whose film preservation triumphs range from the first three-strip Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, to the long-unseen Budd Boetticher western drama Seven Men from Now, this was an especially ambitious project. He had to catalog and digest some eight hours of material, then find a way to present it as a cohesive “diary” of the film’s production.

I daresay everyone in attendance at UCLA last week would call his efforts a great success. The audience included one of Robert Mitchum’s daughters, the film’s youthful star Billy Chapin, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Terry Sanders, who with his brother Denis shot second-unit material in the Deep South for Laughton.

Any film editor will tell you that weak performances are often “saved” by cutting away to other actors in a given scene. Watching the unadulterated footage of Night of the Hunter reveals that Robert Mitchum was never less than great, take after take, in his memorable portrayal of the false prophet Preacher, that eight-year-old Billy Chapin was a marvel of concentration and actorly professionalism, and that it isn’t easy to direct, or work with, a five-year-old—but Laughton had the tenacity, and patience, and charm, to get the best out of little Sally Jane Bruce.

He worked almost as hard with Shelley Winters, but it’s difficult to tell if this is because she didn’t meet his expectations, or if the characterization was simply too difficult to “nail” from one scene to the next. (My favorite utterance in Bob Gitt’s two-hour-and-thirty-eight-minute program comes from Laughton, who says to his leading lady in her deathbed scene, “Just smile, Shelley, and be seraphic.”)

Laughton even replaced one actor altogether, when veteran character man Emmett Lynn seemed too contrived in his folksiness as Uncle Billy; watching his scenes, and then comparing them to those of his replacement, James Gleason, would be rewarding for any student of acting.

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July 2024