The Criterion Touch: Modern Times and Night of the Hunter

An embarrassment of riches this last week, and due to combination of late arrivals, a pesky head cold and time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and am late getting my coverage up. Here are two previously available essentials now getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray, with brief notes on the films and the supplements. Both were released on November 16.

The Night Of The Hunter (Criterion)

The pastoral nightmare

It was a flop upon its release in 1955, but Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is today justly celebrated one of the most beautiful pastoral nightmares the cinema has seen. Robert Mitchum gives a fire and brimstone performance as a demonic con man in preacher man’s robes who stalks two children in search of treasure, and Lillian Gish is a tough but tender shepherd of lost sheep orphans. Part rural film noir and part expressionist parable, this is an American original boasting some of the most striking images to escape from Hollywood.

Previously available in a movie-only edition from MGM, Criterion delivers a stunning DVD and Blu-ray two-disc edition with a magnificent transfer and the correct aspect ratio (1.66:1, not the open-matte 1.33 as previously released, which reveals the top of the set in at least one scene). Assistant director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt and author Preston Neal Jones are gathered to provide commentary and the disc offers the original 40-minute documentary “The Making of Night of the Hunter,” a video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a 15-minute episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film and a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show with Shelly Winters and Peter Graves performing a scene that was cut from the film among the wealth of supplements.

But the great treasure of this release is the 159-minute documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter. This unique production, created by film archivist and restoration guru Robert Gitt (who eschews a director credit in favor of: “Rushes selected and presented by Robert Gitt in collaboration with Nancy Mysel”), is composed almost entirely of outtakes and production footage from the film. Opening with Laughton delivering a dramatic reading to the camera (it appears to have been intended as an introduction to the film, or perhaps a promotional featurette), it shows Laughton stopping and restarting, quietly but authoritatively giving instructions to the cameraman and crew as he keeps the camera rolling through it all. For the rest of the production Laughton is an off-screen voice providing prompts and coaxing the actors through multiple takes of their performances, but his presence is defining. Gitt structures the sequences in narrative order rather than shooting chronology and puts the takes in context of the surrounding scenes, the better for us to place the scenes and see the shaping of the performances. In one sequence, we see inability to get the performance he wanted from one actor and follow it up with the role recast and the new actor (James Gleason) delivering the character he wanted. I’ve seen nothing like it before, and certainly nothing this exhaustive and complete, and it alone would make this disc indispensible. Leonard Maltin discusses the discovery of the footage and creation of the documentary with Gitt in a bonus interview and there is, of course, a booklet with essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow. Technical details at DVD Beaver.

Modern Times (Criterion)

Charlie Chaplin bid farewell to the Little Tramp and the silent cinema that birthed him with this last silent comedy for the sound era. Created at the height of the depression, the Tramp and his “Gamin” (a winning and very grown up Paulette Goddard) fight poverty, industrialization (in a hilarious assembly line burlesque), and even an omnipresent Big Brother in classic pantomime routines set to an inventive mix of sound effects, music, and even a few words from the voices of authority—but never from the Tramp. Chaplin accomplishes it all with comic grace and endearing sentimentality.

All of the Chaplin features (which are still owned by the Chaplin estate) were released in excellent restored (chemically and digitally) two-disc special editions in 2003 by Warner in collaboration with mk2, but Janus recently licensed the entire catalogue. Modern Times marks the first Chaplin release on Criterion and it’s a beaut, from a freshly mastered digital transfer created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. The Warner release featured the 26-minute documentary Chaplin Today: Modern Times, directed by Philippe Truffaut for French TV and featuring interviews with directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two deleted scenes and a 1967 Cuban documentary short For the First Time, about rural peasants seeing their first movie: Modern Times. Those are included in Criterion’s edition, along with original commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, new visual essays by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance, a 20-minute documentary on the visual and sound effects with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, a 1992 interview with the film’s music arranger David Raksin and the 1933 home movie All At Sea with Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Alistaire Cooke, featuring a new score by Donald Sosin and a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge. Plus, of course, a booklet with essays. Technical details at DVD Beaver.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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