Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fritz Lang fans have been wondering for some time where his espionage thriller Man Hunt has been hiding. It's only reasonable to assume that Fox has brought it out now to coincide with the release of Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, an account of a true-life attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Man Hunt is noted for its early anti-Nazi propaganda stance. It was produced and released before the United States entered the war, when Washington was passing neutrality legislation forbidding Hollywood from taking sides in the "European" conflict. This may be the first movie in which a fanatic Nazi declares, "Today Europe, and tomorrow the world!" But it also may be the first movie depicting, even advocating the assassination of a foreign head of state. True to his reputation as the initiator of almost aspect of the espionage genre, Fritz Lang gives us a view through the crosshairs of a telescopic sight, as a marksman draws a bead on Der F&u¨hrer. In 1941, when Andy Hardy reigned supreme on American theater screens, this was pretty cold-blooded stuff.
Darryl Zanuck considered Man Hunt so topical that he rushed it through production and into theaters in record time; he wanted the film out before current events had a chance to make it irrelevant. Warners had jumped on the anti-Nazi bandwagon over a year previously, and by 1941 more than a few films were in release that protested the chaos Germany was causing on the Continent. Dudley Nichols' script has an awkward structure and some shaky characters, but back before Pearl Harbor it was the cutting edge of nail-biting spy suspense.
Sporting huntsman Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) sneaks right up to the Berchtesgaden lair of Adolf Hitler, just to prove that he could assassinate him if he wanted to. Captured by Nazi intelligence agent Quive-Smith (George Sanders), Thorndike refuses to sign a paper stating that the British Government sent him to kill Hitler. He escapes his captors and steals back to London on a Dutch freighter, thanks to the aid of a cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall in his first film). But following the fugitive to England is the Reich agent Mr. Jones (John Carradine), who links up with a network of spies working the docks to recapture Thorndike and force him to sign the confession. On the run in his own city Alan enlists the aid of Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) a sweet cockney seamstress who immediately falls in love with her "gentleman rogue".
Some of Man Hunt has credibility issues: the cavalier, relaxed way that the Nazi Quive-Smith treats Pidgeon's maybe-assassin, for instance, or the way the Germans casually assume that their captive has been killed by a fall from a great height. The basics of anti-Nazi films hadn't quite been codified at this time. Considering the primitive state of cinema espionage in 1941, Man Hunt is really quite sophisticated, especially in action scenes. Lang opens with several dialogue-free minutes of action as Thorndike stalks his prey in the Bavarian mountains. Several other scenes play out in purely visual terms as well. As Thorndike strolls away from the London docks, he notices that several barflies and loiterers are paying him more attention than they should. John Carradine's Mr. Jones is described as a "walking cadaver", like one of the grotesques of Lang's silent Dr. Mabuse or Spione. Thorndike and Jones engage in a no-dialogue sidewalk pursuit that leads to a violent confrontation in the London Underground, a sequence with similarities to the subway chase in William Friedkin's The French Connection.
Man Hunt comes to a standstill in dialogue scenes. The chatty Quive-Smith interrogates Alan Thorndike for minutes, giving up much more information than he gets. Thorndike builds a warm friendship with the helpful (but not MGM-cloying) Roddy McDowall, but the static scenes are limited to a single set. Finally, the would-be spy falls into a sentimental romance with Joan Bennett, who lives in a slum and dressed like a streetwalker. Yet the Production Code insisted that she be a virgin with a heart of gold. A sewing machine is planted in Jerry Stokes' room to show how she makes her living, but Bennett has a tough time making her too-cute character anything believable on the foggy London streets. The comedy is on the tepid side when Alan introduces Jerry to his upper-class relatives; but the film comes to life when Lang lets a decorative hat pin represent Jerry's growing affection for Thorndike -- it becomes another iconic piece of Lang shorthand.
Alan Thorndike is a contradictory character as well. He's a bit like Michael Redgrave's open-minded and slightly eccentric Englishman in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. He's also a precursor to Alfred Hitchcock's Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, an amateur forced to play deadly games with professional spies. Yet Thorndike is also supposed to be a tough guy with previous "adventuring experience" in Africa. The movie is ambiguous on the issue of whether Alan really intended to shoot Hitler. The obvious point of the film is that, like Alan Thorndike, the audience is meant to make up its mind that Hitler is a mortal enemy well worth killing.
Through sheer luck and the help of strangers, Alan survives long enough to see how the London agents operate. He learns how ruthless the Nazis can be when the Nazis try to get to him through the innocent Jerry. Man Hunt races to a violent finish in a cave outside a rural English village. Earlier on, Quive-Smith had remarked on the "sporting spirit" with an allusion to The Most Dangerous Game. When he traps Thorndike in the cave, they become locked in a decisive death struggle.
The acting is secondary to the film's bold political theme. Walter Pidgeon is no Michael Redgrave or Cary Grant and Joan Bennett must work far too hard to make her character credible. The supporting performances are fine, right down to the raffish street agents who look like sinister escapees from "M".
Lang initially got along fairly well with Darryl Zanuck, making two westerns and this spy chase picture in quick succession. But he finished his Fox contract helping out on films signed by Archie Mayo. Producer Kenneth MacGowan had a falling-out with Zanuck over front office interference; legend has it that Zanuck refused to okay the important bridge farewell scene between Jerry and Thorndike, so Lang and his cameraman Arthur Miller filmed it at 3am when nobody was looking, with a skeleton crew. Doing end runs around studio heads is not recommended behavior for ambitious directors. Lang would spend the rest of his impressive Hollywood career bouncing between brief studio assignments and independent productions.
Fox's DVD of Man Hunt presents Fritz Lang's exciting spy chase in perfect condition after a thorough restoration. The Comparison extra shows one shrunken scene that won't ride steady in the gate, but in the restored copy it is rock solid.
Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan talks about the film's genesis and the legendary's director's relationship with Fox. John Ford apparently turned down the assignment before it was offered to Lang. A featurette sticks with generic observations as well. The fascinating Joan Bennett worked with Lang on three more films but we don't learn much about her. Artwork, still and advertising galleries are included as well as an original trailer, which lacks text and narration. Fox's disc cover art is very eye-catching.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man Hunt rates:
Movie: Excellent -
Supplements: commentary, featurette, restoration comparison, galleries, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 27, 2009
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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