The circumstances surrounding the discovery of By Night with Torch and Spear are as enigmatic as the film itself. Shortly before his death, the artist transferred his personal movie collection to Anthology Film Archives for safekeeping. Inspecting the cache several years later, archivists noticed several meticulously edited reels without a title or date. By Night with Torch and Spear was among them.

Through subversive editing, Cornell takes silent-era educational found footage of steelmaking, exotic locals, and insects and turns the world inside out. The scenes are shown in reverse, color tinted or in negative. The intertitles, which like the visuals are often inserted backward or upside down, are signposts that give little direction. Like the path sought by the night hunters in the closing shot, the meanings of the film remain elusive, just beyond our grasp.

Now recognized as a major twentieth-century artist, Joseph Cornell (1903-72) is best known for his exquisite display boxes of found objects. Cornell rarely showed his films. He had been discouraged by the infamous premiere of Rose Hobart (1936), probably the first found footage work screened in America. The event is said to have been cut short when surrealist Salvador Dali kicked over the projector in envy. Cornell continued creating collage films secretly.