A hunter is tracking his prey through the bush. Past the mist, and weeds, and thick brush, he finally settles on a bluff. He takes his scope out of a bag, attaches it carefully to his rifle, and sets the distance at 550 yards. He looks through the scope. We see through the cross-hairs he is aiming at… Adolf Hitler. With the fascist dictator in his sights, he slowly pulls the trigger and…click. He smiles, waves his hand and is about to leave. Then a thought comes to him. He slides a live round into the chamber, re-positions his rife, and once again, he has the murderer of millions in his sights. He again begins to pull the trigger. A leaf falls on his scope. He brushes it away, re-aims, when a Nazi soldier falls on him. They tussle in the dirt, and he is mercilessly beaten.
That is the first five minutes of Man Hunt, Fritz Lang’s first American masterpiece. Made hastily in 1941, it deals with the very murky politics between Germany and England in 1939, before Hitler marched into Poland and before the World War that changed everything. It’s a little miracle of a film, and a bigger miracle that it was ever made. Twilight Time has released a beautiful transfer on Blu-ray, and for any Lang fan, it should be grabbed up as soon as possible.
Based on the celebrated British novel Rogue Male, the story and film are a “call to arms,” much like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and like that film, made Hollywood execs nervous. A period brushed over in history books, Congress had imposed several Neutrality Acts throughout the 1930s, as hostility in Europe threatened the global economy. In fact, and as upside down as it would seem today, Joseph Breen of the Hays Office assembled a committee to look into Hollywood “hate films,” (their term) which they defined as any project that took a strong stance against Germany, Italy or Japan. Man Hunt was the film that started the committee, and its very body was adjourned when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just six months after the film’s release.
Man Hunt tells the story of hunter Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a decorated British officer who is famous for stalking big game for the “sport” of the chase, then fails to shoot his prey, since the thrill is in the stalking. Once captured by the Nazis, Thorndike is worked over by the Gestapo, overseen by sinister, monocle-wearing Major Quive-Smith (a smooth and slippery George Sanders). The Major knows of Thorndike’s exploits, but cannot believe the Captain when he explains he only stalked Hitler to his obsessively secure citadel in order to see if it could be done. Why then, was a live round found in the chamber, Quive-Smith questions. Thorndike cannot give a rational answer, and so a merciless torture and beating follows to force Thorndike’s confession. Unable to get the Captain to break, the Major offers him a deal; sign a confession that he was sent by Britain to “take out” Hitler, and he can return home immediately. Thorndike will not sign the lie, and so he is tortured and left for dead. Then the real “man hunt” begins, as Thorndike makes his escape in hopes of a return to England.
Lang is without a doubt, one of the great architects of film noir as well as the superspy genre, starting with his Dr. Mabuse trilogy, through the astoundingly exciting Spione! (1928). When he fled Nazi Germany (in an oft told tale, following the offer to head up Germany’s Filmed Propaganda department by Goebbels himself) he came to the US, and had to, basically, start over. He was Germany’s genius, but in the States, he was little known. Throughout the 1930s he struggled to find projects that inspired him, or that he was able to leave his signature, and already oft imitated, style. Man Hunt finally gave him that opportunity.
Twentieth Century Fox’s Studio Head Daryl Zanuck knew Rogue Male was a hot property, and knew that Lang had the talent, skill and “chutzpah” to get it made fast. Lang’s orders were to have the film released only three months after cameras started rolling!
Usually Lang was deeply involved with scripting his films, but Man Hunt came to him ready made. It was penned by the incredible Dudley Nichols, writer of The Informer, Stagecoach, and Bringing Up Baby. He was several great directors’ “go-to” screenwriter, and in fact, Man Hunt was written for John Ford to helm, but the director had begun a slew of “serious films” and in the wake of The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, was focused on pre-production for How Green Was My Valley. So the project fell into Lang’s lap.
While Lang outwardly balked, he was secretly excited about the project, as it gave him the opportunity he’d been searching for, ever since he fled Germany, to reveal the real dangers of the Nazi threat. Viewing the film now, you can feel Lang’s excitement and thrall at the material, as every frame bursts with visual dynamics. Just as in M, the pursued flees down winding, cobbled streets, with headlights and street lamps cutting bright streams through the sinister darkness. Borrowing familiar themes from Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lang puts a psychotic, dazzling visual spin by melding the German expressionism with post ’30s paranoia; virtually establishing the film noir code.
As Sander’s supervillain is always just steps behind his prey, another theme begins to surface. Pidgeon’s Thorndike is actually not nearly as cunning, and, as Sanders’ General has accurately accused, suffers from an over-inflated ego; which is also part of Lang’s subtle critique. Rogue Male’s novelist, Geoffrey Household, believed the British ego could not comprehend that so soon after Germany’s defeat in the first World War and subsequent financial collapse, they could become such a threat. Much like Rick Blaine’s line from Casablanca, “I bet they’re asleep all over America,” the story lambasts the Allies for remaining blind and neutral for so long.
Once Thorndike arrives in London (ably assisted by a Danish captain and an adorable cabin boy played by Roddy McDowall), he meets up with a streetwalker, Jerry, who gives him help. Along with the Neutrality Act, Hollywood was also in the grip of the Hays’ Office Censor Board, who red-lined several “questionable” story points. Jerry would have to become a “seamstress” (a sewing machine in the background of her studio apartment is supposed to explain away her “occupation”). But there is no doubt who and what Jerry is. In fact, one amazingly candid scene has the now-smitten Jerry hiding Thorndike out in her apartment, and when he suggests that he will sleep on the couch, she sobs, as he is the first man to not suggest they go to bed together. (Shockingly, this made it past the censors!)
Jerry is believably played by Joan Bennett, who quickly became Lang’s muse (and rumored lover) as she made three more Lang pictures, delivering some of his films’ strongest female roles (next to Gloria Grahame’s gangster moll in Lang’s The Big Heat). She is sweet, sexy and able to deliver a naïve performance as the prostitute who has never been treated well.
The film’s final act, though, offers up a a standard brutal Lang ending, as it takes Thorndike too long to realize how much he cares for Jerry, and his new resolve pins a strange; last-minute optimism to the story, calling the Allies to arms against the Nazi threat.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray also offers a short (and smart) documentary about the making of Man Hunt that gives evidence to Lang’s dictatorial, yet thoroughly successful, directing style, further advancing the film’s credibility as one of the most important pre-war Hollywood films.
Exciting, tense, romantic and prophetic, Man Hunt is one of the tent pole projects in Lang’s career, and definitely his most important American film. A viewer cannot walk away without thinking of The Third Man, Casablanca, The Suspect and many other great films that owe a debt to Lang and to Man Hunt.