September 7, 2019
Man Hunt – US, 1941
Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt is a curiosity. Advertised as the story of a big game hunter in pursuit of Adolf Hitler in the months leading up to the Second World War, it is instead that of a man fleeing from shadowy agents of the Third Reich. It is quite a difference. It’s the equivalent of making the audience think a movie is a supernatural drama when in fact it is about a traumatized man who just happens to walk the streets in a ghostly manner. Gripe as I may about baiting-and-switching, I think most audience members are able to accept a little intentional deception on the part of an advertising department so long as the actual narrative is quite compelling. As for Lang’s film, I’d venture that I would have been intrigued by a synopsis that described pre-war Nazis stalking a famous hunter for the purposes of obtaining a justification for a declaration of war on Britain. Such a film would have the potential to be an intriguing mix of cat chases mouse and mouse chases cat. Fortunately, this is what Lang gives us – at least partially. It is a sign of the times that such a taut thriller suddenly deviates from its promising set-up and becomes one of those superfluous love stories that bear no resemblance to anything in the real world. It doesn’t cause the film to completely implode, but it comes darn near close.
Man Hunt stars Walter Pidgeon as Captain Alan Thorndike, a wealthy hunter legendary for his exploits across Africa. In the film’s opening scene, we see him crouching down and cocking his rifle, the grainy image of Hitler surprisingly standing in its cross hairs. Thorndike steadies himself and prepares to take the shot, but just then, he looks up and waves good-bye in a goofy sort of way, and turns to leave, apparently content to have had the chance to change the course of history. A funny thing happens, though – he appears to have second thoughts, yet just as he appears to be about to take the shot, he is set upon by a patrolling guard, and the moment is lost forever. Soon, Thorndike finds himself in front of Gestapo leader Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), and he sees a golden opportunity in front of him.
However, before that is revealed, the film becomes a long-winded highlight reel of the captain’s career. Major Quive-Smith practically praises the captain and his long list of accomplishments, and in what would later be called true Bond-fashion, then proceeds to tell him his entire plan. (He even suggests that Hitler would have invited him in for tea if he’d knocked on the door.) Here are the highlights: the major – or rather his goons - is going to torture Thorndike until he signs a confession that he was trying to assassinate Hitler at the behest of the British Government, thereby giving Germany just cause to launch hostilities against the U.K., as if Hitler ever waited until international law and public opinion were on his side before invading a neighboring country.
Earlier I alluded to James Bond, and while it would be another twelve years before the first James Bond book and twenty years before the first Bond film, there are further similarities between the captain and the superspy, the most important being that they seem to have the ability to make women fall in love with them in mere seconds. Here, the Bond girl comes in the form of Jerry (Joan Bennett), a tough-as-nails young lady belonging to the commoner class. In less than an evening, Jerry is fawning over Thorndike despite his ignorance of her first name, and when, a bit later, he elects to sleep on the couch in her living room, she gets this expression of her face that suggests that she was hoping for a much different arrangement. And all of this transpires after Thorndike grabs her as she’s trying to leave her apartment and forces her back in. That sounds worse than it actually is. See, the Nazi’s are outside looking for him, and you know what they say about desperate times.
The introduction of Jerry derails the film somewhat for it prevents the Captain from doing what a character of his sort is supposed to be doing, mainly turning the tables on his pursuers. Now a case can be made that he doesn’t know them in the beginning, yet once he gets a good look at them, which he does, I expected more from him that just proposing to flee the country. Shouldn’t he be setting the traps and not the other way around? Jerry’s arrival also heralds the start of the film’s comic relief – or at least its attempts at it. Suddenly, we get scenes involving fish and chips and hat pins, as if the two of them hadn’t a care in the world.
The film ends with an action-packed, suspenseful confrontation between good and evil, and the good news is that the scene is downright effective. I remember hoping the film ended right after its eventful climax. Sure, it would have been a downer, but it would also have been the kind of ending that stands the test of time. Instead, we get propaganda – a return from the brink and a promise that next time will be different. It was a fine message in 1941, yet now it marks the film as a product of its time and not one that has aged particularly well. It also doesn’t help that there’s a narrator for the first time in the scene, making me wonder whether the ending was tacked on by the studio and not Lang himself.
As with most films by the distinguished director, Man Hunt is visually stunning. Lang truly was a master at using light and shadows, and here he uses them to convey the difference between the captain and his accusers, as well as to build up the peril that exists for Thorndike. I especially liked the way he keeps his camera focused on Sanders’ character during a brutal interrogation. Many contemporary films would cut to Thorndike’s battered and bruised body, possibly even showing the physical abuse itself. However, Lang realized that all that is needed to convey torture is an ominous threat, a few off-screen slaps, punches, and screams followed by silence, and a later shot of the wounded trying desperately to stay on his feet. It’s more than enough. In a way, it’s tougher to take than the more graphic scenes that succeeded it.
In the end, Man Hunt is a good film. It has a great set-up, an interesting, yet muddled middle, and a thrilling close. Yet, one gets the feeling that it could have been a great film had the film played it straight. The material was more than adequate, and the cast certainly give it their all. There’s just something amiss, something that keeps the movie from becoming truly involving, and perhaps it’s one of those qualities that the captain shares with Bond in his worst movies. Thorndike is simply too congenial. He makes jokes when a rationale person wouldn’t, he’s flippant when he’s should be dead serious, and there he is introducing Jerry to his family when he should be trying to limit her involvement. In other words, he takes his eye off the ball, and if he’s willing to do this, there’s no reason for the audience not to as well. (on DVD and Region B Blu-ray)