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One of the biggest directors in 1920s Europe, Fritz Lang found himself just another hired hand in Hollywood, where he chafed at the demands of a studio system that didn't recognize his hard-won prestige. Yet he soon adapted to his new home, even if he never became the most popular man in town. When war came to Europe Lang made a solid contribution to the anti-Nazi effort with the films Ministry of Fear and Hangmen Also Die! His first war-themed thriller Man Hunt is especially daring.
Man Hunt was produced and released before the United States entered the war, when Washington was still 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 seriously advocating the assassination of a foreign head of state. The initiator and innovator of almost every aspect of the espionage genre, Fritz Lang opens his film with a view through the crosshairs of a telescopic sight, as a marksman draws a bead on Der F&u¨hrer. This was pretty cold-blooded stuff for 1941, when Andy Hardy reigned supreme on American theater screens.
Darryl Zanuck considered Man Hunt so topical that he rushed it through production and into theaters in record time; he wanted it 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.
The film opens on German soil. Sportsman 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".
Much of Man Hunt has credibility issues, starting with the cavalier, relaxed way that the Nazi Quive-Smith treats Pidgeon's maybe-assassin. We're also not convinced by the way the Germans casually assume that their captive has been killed by a fall from a great height. At this early date the basics of anti-Nazi films hadn't yet to be codified. Considering the primitive state of cinema espionage in 1941, Man Hunt is really quite sophisticated, especially in its 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 menacing 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, or Lang's own While the City Sleeps.
Man Hunt frequently comes to a standstill in its 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 in a series of static scenes limited to a single set. Finally, the would-be spy falls into a sentimental romance with Joan Bennett, who lives in a slum and dresses like a streetwalker on the foggy London streets. 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 earns her living, but Bennett has a tough time making her too-cute character believable. 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 likeable, but has less personality than 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. 1Through sheer luck and the help of strangers, Alan survives long enough to learn how the London agents operate. He sees how ruthless the Nazis can be when the Nazis try to get to him by victimizing 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; Dudley Nichols' script reduces her to a puppy enraptured by her handsome hero, and Fritz Lang directs her to telegraph her feelings with pixie-eyed glee. Bennett is adorable just the same. 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 on the sly with a skeleton crew, at 3am when nobody was looking. Doing end runs around studio heads is not recommended behavior for clout-challenged directors. Lang would spend the rest of his impressive Hollywood career bouncing between brief studio assignments and independent productions.
The Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Man Hunt is a flawless presentation of cinematographer Arthur Miller's richly lensed night scenes and tender close-ups. The HD contrast range allows the transfer colorist to give the night scenes varying levels of darkness, from shots with shiny cobblestoned streets to much darker underground tunnels. Exterior B&W sets of forests and underbrush never looked this good.
Twilight Time adds an Isolated Score Track for Alfred Newman's suspenseful music. Carried over from the 2009 Fox DVD is a commentary by Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, who 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. Also repeated is Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt, a featurette that floats more spokespeople (including horror expert Kim Newman) and balances its generic observations with interesting facts and luminous scene stills. We don't learn much about the fascinating Joan Bennett, though. She got along well with Lang and worked with him on three more films. An original trailer lacks both text and narration and as a result plays like an art film collage of disconnected visuals.
Julie Kirgo's insert folder notes examine Man Hunt as a film noir, a controversial anti-Nazi "hate film" and as a consummate Lang film. The well-directed action thriller functions like a precisely tuned machine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man Hunt Blu-ray rates:
1. If there were a real Thorndike, and if he did succeed in pulling the trigger and killing Hitler, world disaster might have followed. A main reason Germany didn't subdue England and Europe was Hitler's own incompetent leadership, purging some of his best generals and making one tactical blunder after another. Without Hitler's personally gumming up the works, Germany might very well have won. Attention Scotland Yard ! Apprehend and kill Alan Thorndike !
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T'was Ever Thus.