|Set in 1939 just before Germany’s world-war-provoking invasion of Poland, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt begins with a startlingly provocative image: Adolf Hitler in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. Seeing one of history’s most notorious figures in a position of such vulnerability has an immediately queasy intensity, fueled with burning “What if?” questions that make every close-up of the trigger finger into something more than simple life and death; rather, history is on the line. The man on the other end of the weapon is Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a British big-game hunter who, having tired of stalking animal prey, has decided to give himself the ultimate test. Unfortunately for future history, he has no intention of firing a round (or so he tells himself); rather, this is just a “sporting stalk,” a self-challenge to see if he could get past Nazi security and put himself in the position to kill “Der Fuehrer.”|
Alas, the SS doesn’t see it that way when he is captured and taken before Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), a refined Gestapo officer who tortures Thorndike and attempts to force him to sign a confession that the British government sent him to assassinate Hitler. Thorndike eventually escapes their clutches and makes his way back to England, but even there he is not safe as Quive-Smith and his creepy minions (including John Carradine) continue to track him, thus turning the hunter into the hunted. He is aided along the way, first by a cabin boy (Roddy McDowall) who helps him escape Germany on a Danish freighter, and then by a young Cockney girl named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) who is quite clearly a prostitute, although the Production Code at the time forbade any direct suggestion of her occupation (a sewing machine conspicuously placed in the background of her apartment is meant to insinuate that she is a seamstress, although we never see her sew anything). Genre dictates perilous romance, but the age and class differences that separate Thorndike and Jerry result in his treating her more like an alternately lovable and exasperating kid sidekick than an objet d’amour, although their final parting on a foggy bridge has an eloquent pang of loss that makes up for some of their clumsier interactions.
Director Fritz Lang had personal experience in escaping Nazi Germany: He had done it himself in 1933 after being asked to head up the country’s film industry by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. After making his way to the United States, he found consistent, albeit rarely satisfying, work in Hollywood making films in many genres, although primarily thrillers and crime films. To these films he brought his background in German expressionism and his thematic preoccupations with violence, madness, and vengeance, which often resulted in darker and more sinister screen experiences than Hollywood usually produced (not surprisingly, he became an important voice in the development of film noir in the 1940s).
During his first five years in Hollywood, Lang had made a handful of crime films and two westerns, but Man Hunt, which he was approached to direct after John Ford dropped out, offered him the first opportunity to return directly to his roots in German cinema, as well as the spy genre, which he had all but invented with 1922’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and then refined with Spies (1927) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Man Hunt’s taut narrative about a man being hunted in increasingly claustrophobic urban settings in which danger is literally around every corner (a particularly tense sequence takes place in a dark, deserted London Underground tunnel) is right out of Lang’s first sound film M, (1931), as is its reversal of hunter and hunted. If Man Hunt never approaches that film’s greatness, it is not for lack of suspense, but rather because of tonal unevenness and a flaccid middle section that, while important for setting up the climactic confrontation between Thorndike and Quive-Smith, nevertheless sags and feels much longer than it is. Nevertheless, the film has an impressive visual style (the cinematography is by three-time Oscar winner Arthur C. Miller) and a scope that makes it almost impossible to believe that it was all shot on soundstages and on the Fox backlot.
More than anything, though, Man Hunt is a film of its moment. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols (a longtime collaborator with John Ford) took the popular 1939 novel Rogue Male and replaced novelist Geoffrey Household’s general references to a foreign dictator with direct representation of Germany and Hitler. This was a daring move at the time because, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood was maintaining strict neutrality in its depictions of Germany, which Man Hunt clearly discards by portraying the Nazi regime as unquestionably corrupt and hellbent on dragging the world into war. Thus, it explicitly prefigures the surge of anti-Nazi cinema that was to come, including three more films directed by Lang: Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear, and Cloak and Dagger.
Lang felt a particular sense of obligation to ensure that the Nazis were portrayed with as much villainy as possible, albeit not so much that they became cartoon targets (Lang has said that he “jumped” at the chance to direct Man Hunt). Quive-Smith is a perfect example of Lang’s view of the political regime that held his homeland in its grip: Although refined and intelligent, able to carry on polite conversation and speak in perfect English, Quive-Smith is also ruthless, cunning, and ultimately despicable in his pursuit of not just Thorndike, but his false confession. Thorndike, on the other hand, is a model depiction of British resourcefulness and determination, even if his initial idea of “sport stalking” Hitler is not a particularly good one. In retrospect, then, we can see Man Hunt as a barely disguised allegory for the conflict between the Allies and the Axis powers, which leads to an intriguingly hopeful denouement that promises a salvation that was not to come for another five years.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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