Release Date(s)1980 (April 8, 2022)
Studio(s)Rastar/Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The Hunter was the final feature completed by Steve McQueen before his untimely death due to complications from cancer at the age of 50, and it’s largely remembered today because of that fact. The reviews at the time weren’t particularly kind, and the film failed to generate much heat at the box office. Yet as is often the case, it wasn’t so much the film itself that was to blame for that, as it was unfair viewer expectations. The Hunter wasn’t in sync with its times, as Eighties action films were about to take a very different direction than this. It’s not really an action film at all, but rather an amiable, low-key character study—more Junior Bonner than The Getaway. Met on its own terms, it still has a lot to offer.
The Hunter is about the real-life bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson (who has a cameo in the film as a bartender). The screenplay was by Ted Leighton and Peter Hyams, based on the book by Christopher Keane. Hyams originally intended to direct as well, but he and McQueen didn’t see eye-to-eye (to say the least), so television veteran Buzz Kulik was brought in instead. McQueen also wanted to direct, and there were stories that he did indeed ghost-direct much of the film, but there’s not much here that doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of Kulik’s work. In any event, McQueen always had an active hand behind-the-scenes, since he protected his image zealously, so it wasn’t unusual for him to put directors through their paces.
There’s a weird slice-of-life quality to The Hunter, with no real narrative flow, but rather a series of barely connected scenes. It’s all about establishing the character of Thorson, who effectively becomes a laid-back version of Josey Wales or Bronco Billy—the reluctant leader of a growing entourage of people that he had previously helped. He struggles to come to grips with fatherhood as his pregnant girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) nears her due date, and yet he’s already been a father figure to needy people like Tommy (LeVar Burton), and many, many others. There’s a bit of dramatic conflict with authority figures like Sheriff Strong (Ben Johnson), though that’s dropped after it’s barely started, and also with a psychotic former bounty (Tracey Walter), but even that’s pretty perfunctory. If there’s any narrative arc to the film a whole, it all comes down to Thorson’s feelings about fatherhood.
Anyone looking for gritty, hard-hitting action in The Hunter will be disappointed. There are a few action set pieces, including a memorable one on top of an elevated train in Chicago, but they’re not the focus of the film. It’s all about Thorson, a man who’s as out of step with modern society as the film itself turned out to be. Read that way, the old-fashioned, understated television aesthetic of The Hunter seems entirely appropriate for the story that it wants to tell.
Cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp shot The Hunter on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. There’s no information regarding the master that Paramount provided for Imprint’s Blu-ray version, but it appears to be an older one. Reframed at 1.78:1, it’s a little soft and less detailed than a newer scan would have provided, but it still looks pretty good overall. The grain is managed inconsistently, with the optically printed opening titles featuring chunky grain that the encode can’t handle—it tends to swarm on the surface of McQueen’s car. There’s also an optical zoom at 52:21 that also looks pretty rough. The rest of the film looks better, though it may have had some digital noise reduction applied to it at times. Otherwise, it’s pretty clean aside from light speckling, and the color grade seems accurate.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English subtitles. It’s a clean track, without any significant damage, and while the dialogue doesn’t always integrate well into the soundstage, it’s clear throughout the film. The frequently kitschy score from Michel Legrand (with contributions from Charles Bernstein) may be as much of a matter of taste as the film itself, but it sounds good here.
Via Vision’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of The Hunter is #110 in their Imprint line, and it comes with a Limited Edition slipcase featuring artwork based upon the North American theatrical posters, and an insert based upon the French poster design. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Jason Ney
- Steve McQueen, Man on the Edge (SD – 58:09)
- TV Trailer (Upscaled HD – :29)
- TV Spot (Upscaled HD – :19)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:12)
Professor and author Jason Ney begins by giving an overview of what he plans to cover, and he generally sticks to his plan for the rest of the commentary. He talks about McQueen’s life, the real “Papa” Thorson, and the other actors in the film, as well as giving details about the film’s production, and analyzing many of its scenes. Ney really does give a lot of information—anyone looking for all of the minutiae about the vintage Chevy that McQueen drives in the film, needs to look no further. He does a nice job of clearing up fact from fiction regarding the cancer that took McQueen’s life, and also spends time on the negative reviews that The Hunter received, especially Roger Ebert’s pan. Ney himself ends up defending some aspects of the film, while criticizing others. He closes with a nice story about McQueen’s kind treatment of a local high school student during filming.
Steve McQueen, Man on the Edge is a 1990 television documentary about the actor, produced and directed by George Feldman. Narrated by McQueen’s The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape co-star James Coburn, it’s a comprehensive look at McQueen’s life from birth to death, featuring interviews with friends, family, and co-workers.
The Hunter isn’t necessarily an easy film to like, because you have to go to it, rather than waiting for it to come to you. Clear your mind of expectations, go with the flow, and there’s a lot here to enjoy. That’s good advice in general, but it’s especially true in this case.
- Stephen Bjork