Man Hunt (1941)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Kenneth Macgowan, Len Hammond, Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols (with help from Lamar Trotti), based on the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
Cinematography by Arthur Miller
Edited by Allen McNeil
Music by Alfred Newman (and David Buttolph)
20th Century Fox DVD
You can’t ask for a more intriguing opening. A tall, thin man creeps through a heavily wooded section of the Bavarian Alps, settles himself on the ground, and carefully aims his rifle towards what appears to be a hidden mountain retreat. Several hundred yards away, we (and the man) spot Adolf Hitler in the rifle’s crosshairs. Before the man can pull the trigger with a live round in the chamber, a German soldier on patrol wanders by and changes everything.
This German soldier has captured none other than Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon, right), a British big-fame hunter. Thorndike, under the heavy questioning of Gestapo Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, left), insists that he wasn’t trying to assassinate Hitler; he seeks only the thrill of the hunt. To kill would be unthinkable. Quive-Smith isn’t buying, but he gives Thorndike an ultimatum: sign a confession stating that he attempted to assassinate Hitler and walk away or submit to Gestapo torture. We haven’t known Thorndike very long at this point, but we know he’s not the type to play ball with the Nazis, even to save his own skin.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that Thorndike escapes, but he knows a reversal has taken place and he has now become the hunted. While Thorndike is tracked by several nasties (including a creepy agent known only as “Mr. Jones,” played by John Carradine), he’s also aided by an English cabin boy (Roddy McDowall, right, at age 12, already in his 18th film) and a young Cockney woman named Jenny (Joan Bennett). Yet he knows Quive-Smith is closing in…
I discovered Man Hunt at a discount book/DVD store and almost passed right by it. Had I not seen “Directed by Fritz Lang” on the cover, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I also didn’t realize the film was based on a book I’d read several years ago, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Man Hunt follows the book closely at the beginning, yet the 1939 novel does not name the European dictator (although readers at the time certainly knew it was Hitler). Although the book explores the darker side of violence and survivalism (the author even called it a “bastard offspring of Stevenson and Conrad”), the film at least touches on Household’s themes and adds unmistakable noir (or perhaps “pre-noir”) elements in its shadowy cinematography, feeling of entrapment in the dark, and more.
Man Hunt is an enormously effective spy thriller, so much so that you tend to overlook some of its weaknesses, which include a romantic thread that runs a little too long (although Pidgeon and Bennett share a truly wonderful scene near the end of the film) and some odd casting. Although he was certainly practiced at playing nasties, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine George Sanders as a convincing German. (It almost seems like he abandons the accent about halfway thorough the film.) American actress Joan Bennett’s Cockney accent isn’t very believable either, but she had worked with Lang before and liked him. (Apparently he liked her as well, maybe a little too much, and although rumors abound, there’s no solid evidence of an affair.)
Lang would, of course, go on to direct such noir classics as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and many others, but before this, he was an icon of German cinema. Films such as M, Metropolis and his Dr. Mabuse series not only singled Lang out as the most revered filmmaker in Germany, it also brought him to the attention of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who wanted Lang to head the Nazi-controlled German film studio. Accounts differ as to exactly when it happened, but Lang fled Germany in 1934, first to Paris, then to America.
As good as Man Hunt is, its place in film history – as well as history itself – runs the risk of overshadowing the film itself. It may be hard for modern audiences to grasp, but the Production Code Administration was very concerned that the film portrayed Nazis in a negative light. Joseph Breen stated in a studio memo that “…the Nazis are characterized as brutal and inhuman people, and the Englishman—or Englishmen—are the sympathetic characters.” America had not yet entered World War II and most American war films from this point on would look decidedly different. Yet Man Hunt should be considered on its own merits as a fine espionage thriller from one of the true masters of cinema.