Fritz Lang, 1941
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders
In 1939, Captain Alan Thorndike, a famous big game hunter, is stalking Adolf Hitler through the forest in Germany. He pulls out his rifle and shoots, though the gun is unloaded. Discovered by a guard, he is taken into the custody of Nazi Major Quive-Smith. Despite the fact that Thorndike is British, Quive-Smith has heard of him and holds him in high regard, and even claims to view him a colleague. Thorndike tries to explain that he was merely stalking Hitler for sport and did not intend to kill him. The unbelieving Quive-Smith tries to force him to sign a confession blaming the activity on the British government. Thorndike refuses and is beaten, tortured, and thrown off a cliff. Due to a happy accident, he survives and escapes back to England, but Nazis continue to pursue him with increasingly violent means…
Based on Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male from 1939, Man Hunt is one of Fritz Lang’s most underrated films and remains an excellent example of his work from this period. Alongside Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Man Hunt was one of the first openly anti-Nazi films, something that gave the Hays Office hours of anxiety, as they sought a policy of tolerance and looking the other way until the U.S. officially entered the war after Pearl Harbor. Lang subtly makes mention of this in Man Hunt, focusing on the fact that the British also sought a period of a placation with the Nazis up until they were attacked by the Wehrmacht and Hitler ordered the beginning of the long, destructive London Blitz.
Man Hunt is easily one of the best propaganda films of the war alongside Hitchcock’s similarly early, suspense-themed, and London-set Foreign Correspondent (1940). Both films also star George Sanders, though Lang portrays Nazis with a much blacker mark than does Hitchcock; in Foreign Correspondent, they are an ever-present, yet vague menace and could be exchanged with any underground network of criminals and spies. They certainly seem much more like gangsters than do Lang’s Nazis. There is the implication that the Nazis of Man Hunt delight in sadism, even the reserved, polished, well-mannered, and well-educated Quive-Smith.
The film does succumb to a few clichés and a few clumsy moments of propaganda. Thorndike is depicted as an air-headed, clueless aristocrat early on, though Lang fortunately delved more deeply into his character. There’s also the uncomfortable notion – as exemplified in Jerry – that if you kidnap a woman and treat her badly, she’s probably going to fall in love with you. This plot device was used a few years earlier in The 39 Steps, among other films from the period, though Lang again puts his twist on it and Joan Bennett fortunately creates a dynamic, sympathetic character.
Bennett is excellent as always throughout the film, though her cockney accent is difficult to believe. Hilariously, Lang only paid lip service to the Production Code’s insistence that Jerry should be a seamstress instead of a prostitute – there’s a sewing machine in the corner of the room – but she is very clearly a lower class lady of the night. She’s murdered by the Nazis hunting Thorndike, though not simply because she’s a lowly female character, but to show the true nature of Nazi brutally. Though they torture, attempt to kill, and stalk Thorndine, Lang assures us that this isn’t a one-off behavior. Her death is not depicted on screen, thanks to the Production Code, but it’s implied that she is tortured and then also thrown to her death.
Though Walter Pidgeon is excellent as Thorndike, he’s overshadowed either by Joan Bennett or by George Sanders as the evil yet seductive Quive-Smith. I really could watch George Sanders watching paint dry and not get bored – he’s an indispensable staple of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema and it’s crazy that modern film audiences seem to have forgotten him. Genre film fans will rejoice, as Sanders is joined by a youngish John Carradine as an anonymous Nazi on Thorndike’s tail, and by a very young Roddy McDowall as a plucky young cabin boy who helps Thorndike hide from the Nazis. There are solid performances across the board and nary a scene is wasted. Lang also makes the most of his setting, giving it a distinctly German Expressionist flavor. An idyllic, almost fairytale-like Germany full of forests and mountains is contrasted with a claustrophobic London comprised of menacing alleyways, the kind of bridges you would want to commit suicide from, and an alarming sense of classism that appears most of all in Jerry’s characters.
Man Hunt is available on DVD, but I’m still waiting for a Blu-ray box set of Lang’s wartime thrillers. Come on, Criterion or Kino, or even BFI. The film comes highly recommend and is a truly dark, despair work that promotes American intervention in the war on one hand, and shows the violent nature of all men’s hearts on the other.