This offbeat thriller from legendary Austrian-German émigré filmmaker Fritz Lang is sometimes written off as one of a group of fairly unremarkable propagandistic wartime melodramas that the director churned out for Hollywood in the early forties after being forced to flee Nazi Germany and then embracing the American studio system. These films tend to lack both the critical prestige and the mystique that surrounds many of the director’s bleak film noir essays in desire and corruption, such as “The Woman in the Window” (1944) and “Scarlet Street” (1945), with the latter perhaps more in sync with the director’s subsequent reputation built by the cult status of Lang’s German-made UFA masterpieces, “Dr Mabuse: The Gambler “(1922), “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931) – all seen as the precursors of the film noir style. “Man Hunt” does, though, mark the first appearance of Lang’s femme fatale extraordinaire from this era, Joan Bennett, in a problematic but nevertheless touching and ultimately uncompromising role. There are also memorable turns from a skeletal John Carradine as a Nazi agent and George Sanders as a charming but deadly Gestapo commander.
Made a few months before the US entered the war, and with Britain still reeling under the German onslaught of the Blitz, the film has one clear objective in mind: focus the allied spirit on the objective of fighting and defeating a ruthless enemy. But despite being originally intended as a project for John Ford, this apparently generic tub-thumping thriller soon succumbs to the artful Fritz Lang style evident from its very first frames, with its mix of magical forest settings and foggy East End street locations suffused in an expressionistic chiaroscuro and looming shadows throughout. The psychology of the film also stands up to re-analysis; a strange dreamlike plot unfolds about a man on the run who never seems to get anywhere. The story is full of threatening doppelgängers, repressions, denial of motive and, eventually, a heartfelt self-discovery. The beautifully clear print on show in Optimum Releasing’s new UK DVD, released as part of their Hollywood Classics range, makes this a must for fans of Lang’s intoxicating cinema.
Walter Pidgeon – a MGM star on lone to 20th Century Fox for this production – plays Alan Thorndike, an upper-class English big game hunter, caught at the beginning of the film by the Nazis, sometime before the start of the SWW, after having been discovered in a Bavarian forest with his long-range rifle sights trained on the Führer -- at the time encamped in his secret forest retreat. Gestapo commander Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) affects an easy-going, civilized English charm with his ‘guest’, but soon makes it clear that Thorndike must sign a letter stating that he had been sent by the British Government as an assassin on a secret mission to kill Adolf Hitler. Only then will he be allowed to go home as a dupe in a war of propaganda between the two perilously poised nations. Despite displaying a jocular tone and maintaining that he only ever embarked upon his ‘hunt for Hitler’ as a personal challenge to himself and his own skills as a game hunter, taking on this most closely guarded of men as a ‘sporting stalk’, without actually intending to kill anyone for real -- Thorndike refuses to betray his Government, even after severe torture and brutal beatings by Nazi thugs.
Eventually, Quive-Smith and his henchmen decide to fake their prisoner’s death by pushing him off a cliff in the forest; but fate intervenes and Thorndike lands in a soft, boggy patch of peat-land after having his fall partially broken by the branches of a tree. The hunter now becomes the hunted as the Nazi forces hunt their prey across Germany, until he eventually makes it back to London with the help of a young matey ships’ deck-hand on a Danish trawler (the boy is played by a very young Roddy McDowall in a beguiling little performance). Back on foggy London streets (full of parading pearly kings) at last, a cheerful Thorndike finds that his troubles are far from over: one of Major Quive-Smith’s shadowy agents -- a black-garbed thin man, like the one in “Metropolis” -- has assumed Thorndike’s identity, using his stolen passport to travel back to Britain on the same ship carrying the man himself. The Major and his gang of Nazi hoodlums have also arrived, and together they begin covertly tracking the beleaguered hero through the dingy, wet, fog-shrouded backstreets of the East End. After the intervention of a kindly cockney prostitute called Jerry (Joan Bennett), who saves Thorndike’s life, he vows to pay her back with a large sum of money once safely ensconced back in his leisured life of ease. But the ever-present danger from his pursuers refuses to dissipate, and after being forced to kill the man in black -- who was still using his identity to move about London incognito -- he finds himself in the peculiar position of being forced to flee from capture for committing his own murder!
While Thorndike attempts to go to ground, Major Quive-Smith turns out to have one more nasty surprise in store for his quarry, though – one which will force Thorndike to honestly face himself and his true motives.
Beginning with a montage of silent, mysterious tracking shots panning across a glistening, magical-looking studio-constructed forest set, “Man Hunt” quickly elevates its perfunctory Hitchcockian material into an existential odyssey of psychological self-discovery for its unusual upper-class hero. Walter Pidgeon seems on the surface far too affable and complacent a lead to convince as the protagonist of a tough thriller such as this, but that turns out to be the point of Lang’s complicated study of the unconscious drives motivating the principle hero of the piece. The ambiguity of Thorndike’s position at the very start of the film, as we witness him carefully lining up an unmissable clear shot at Hitler through the window of the Fuhrer’s study, before finding endless reasons to further procrastinate in the firing – and when he does it turns out that he hasn’t loaded a cartridge in the rife anyway! – produces a wonderful piece of suspense cinema, worthy of Hitchcock himself, but it functions as a kind of allegory for Britain’s initial attempt at appeasement of Germany (this is set before the invasion of Poland, and we later learn that Thorndike’s aristocratic brother, Lord Riseborough [Frederick Worlock] was involved in appeasement negotiations with the disdainful Major Quive-Smith beforehand) and for the US’s initial reluctance to engage in the war on the allied side.
But just before he is finally captured by a patrolling sentry, we see a change of expression come over Thorndike’s face, and he does, in fact, load a bullet into the rifle. The following masterfully played scene between Sanders and Pidgeon sets up one of the central conundrums of the film: did Thorndike, in fact, really intend to shoot Hitler or not? The mechanics of the plot require the viewer to side with the protagonist’s unwillingness to sign the incriminating document proffered him, but his cheerfully imparted ‘sporting stalk’ story rings psychologically untrue all the same. The film becomes in a way a sort of mystery story -- with its true aim being to discover what is actually going on in the mind of the hero. Ironically, Saunders, the dashing, monocled Nazi villain of the piece (it’s hard not to notice that the brilliantined Quive-Smith is played superbly by Saunders as though he’s Lang’s on-screen alter ego!), becomes the unrelenting agent of Thorndike’s self-enlightenment.
The provocative image of a British member of the establishment engineering a chance to kill Hitler and then rejecting it, must have been a disturbing and somewhat wistful one to audiences watching in 1941. It would have reminded them of the interwar tendency by world leaders to treat politics as a kind of game, and that chances to stop Hitler in his tracks before the invasion of Poland had been missed because of the kind of cavalier attitude Thorndike exhibits in treating his hunting of the Fuhrer as merely one of his sporting stalks -- as just a game played between political elites with a special set of sporting rules that everyone is expected to play by. This was the kind of attitude parodied by Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger, and known at the time as Colonel Blimp-ism. The rest of the film becomes an especially shadowy allegory, with Saunders ruthlessly tracking Pidgeon as he attempts to take back his old position in the upper echelons of British society without having to face up to the realities of a looming war with a ruthless dictatorship.
To help him do this Thorndike is forced to enlist the aid of London’s kindly, salt-of-the-earth working classes, in the form of Roddy McDowall as Vaner the cabin boy and Joan Bennett, the tough but brittle prostitute (although it’s never explicitly stated, it’s obvious to modern viewers that’s what she is – although, true to character at least, Thorndike never acknowledges it).
Despite being saddled with a ludicrous attempt at a cockney accent that has to be heard to be believed (it sounds like nothing on earth and leaves Dick Van Dyke and Johnny Depp looking like mere amateurs in the bad British accent stakes!) Joan Bennett plays a key role in the film’s metaphorical story as Jerry Stokes. The need for a realignment in English class structure and in wartime relationships between men and women is portrayed as being vital to the success of Britain’s war effort in the film, and so Bennett’s character gets to introduce the urbanely prissy Thorndike to the delights of fish n’ chips, and begins to fall in love with the fact that he ‘doesn’t behave like a Gentleman’ (in Stokes’ world, behaving like a Gentleman means exactly the opposite of what we’d normally take it to mean!). There’s a highly amusing scene in which Thorndike takes Stokes back to his brother’s London town house and introduces her to his shocked sister-in-law, Lady Alice Risborough. After some light comedy of manners stuff, Lady Risborough is charmed enough by Stokes’ friendly working-class manner into finally being converted to speaking about the police using Stokes’ preferred argot of ‘rossers’ and ‘dicks’!
One of the ironies of the film is that Thorndike discovers Major Quive-Smith can move with ease through his own world of upper-class privilege and high politics, making it essential that he find a home among the lower orders of British society if he is to remain alive. At the same time, Thorndike finds it hard to fully accept his place among them, as evidenced by his repeated attempts to lose the lovelorn Stokes, whose almost childlike wish to remain with him he repeatedly treats as stubborn wrongheadedness, thinking he can buy her off with trinkets and large sums of money.
The stakes get higher and higher for Thorndike as the film progresses, and Lang represents his emerging realisation that he is dealing with ruthless killers who have to be taken seriously, by literally sending the character underground as he flees deeper into the margins of society, where he is forced to confront his own values in isolation. The Major is quick to point out, when they meet again at the climax of the film, that Thorndike seems no longer to be playing by the same rules of the sporting stalk of the big game hunter which governed his action previously. Being underground comes to represent Thorndike being forced to examine his own subconscious motivations; he is underground again – in a cave hideout in the countryside -- when the Major discovers him for the final time after he leaves Jerry Stokes back in London -- and this is where his final revelation, and the climactic empowering self-realisation, at last occurs after the Major, in the same level-headed, reasonable tone of voice used when conversing with diplomats or in clubs, gives him a piece of information relating to the fate of a highly sympathetic character that reveals the true nature of the evil at work in the heart of the Nazi project, and convinces him to now fight with true conviction for its eradication. In any other Hollywood film in any other period, there would undoubtedly have been a last minute reprieve and a drawing back from the grim nature of the climax of this film, but the war effort probably made the unpalatable nature of it more acceptable to the studio, in that it makes Thorndike’s conversion all the more necessary and convincing and stirs the audience against the Nazi threat.
Although imperfect and at times poorly paced, this is a significant film from Fritz Lang, beautifully shot with gorgeous expressionistic black and white photography and some amazing set-pieces that show the director working in the Hitchcock suspense mode with consummate skill and craftsmanship. The print here looks beautiful, with deep rich velvety blacks and a pleasing sharpness to the image, enhancing Lang’s often enchanting compositions depicting fogbound East End streets (admittedly unrealistic depictions thereof), as well as the shadowy realm of the London Underground and Jerry Stokes’ candle-lit flat. The DVD also features a short and not very memorable trailer. Well worth seeking out.