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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Man Hunt (Blu-ray)
Man Hunt (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // August 12, 2014 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Screenarchives]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 7, 2014 | E-mail the Author
DVD Talk Collector Series
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Man Hunt (1941) is a terrific, tense thriller directed by Fritz Lang and released about six months prior to America's entry into the Second World War. That made it one of a handful of anti-Nazi Hollywood movies (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Foreign Correspondent, and A Yank in the R.A.F. are other examples) produced at a time when America was still clinging to a mostly isolationist stance, even as it offered tacit assistance to Britain and other countries threatened by Hitler's Germany.

The movie imaginatively tells a unique story, adapted from Geoffrey Household's 1939 thriller Rogue Male. The same story was again adapted as a 1976 British television film starring Peter O'Toole and Alistair Sim, and was a major influence on David Morrell's novel First Blood (1972), later famously filmed with Sylvester Stallone.

Apparently, in the novel, the dictator that is the target of the big-game hunter goes unnamed (I myself haven't read Household's book). Lang's movie, however, explicitly has Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) targeting der Fuhrer in 1939 Germany, making Fox and Hollywood's Production Code nervous. Regardless, it's extremely well done, holding up marvelously well even now. It's incredibly tense at times, gorgeously photographed in black-and-white, unpredictable and frequently surprising with Lang and his collaborators making many unusual and innovative creative decisions.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray, licensed from Fox, is superb, among the very best-looking high-def transfers of an early ‘40s Hollywood black-and-white movie, comparable to Criterion's Foreign Correspondent. The release carries over most of the extras from Fox's 2009 DVD release.

Man Hunt opens with a proverbial bang. In July 1939, Alan Thorndike slips undetected through the forests near Berchtesgaden, taking position on a cliff where he readies the telescopic sight of his high-powered rifle. Pointing it toward the Berghof, he sets his sights on Adolf Hitler, Germany's Chancellor, and pulls the trigger. Click. The gun is not loaded. Pausing for a moment, he loads a live round, but a German soldier on patrol takes him at the last moment.

Next is a scene at Hitler's residence, a long conversation entirely in German between Nazi intelligence agent Quive-Smith (George Sanders) and a Doctor (Ludwig Stössel), daring in that all of the movie's scenes involving only Germans are always in German without subtitles, never English. The prisoner is hauled before Quive-Smith, who to Thorndike's surprise recognizes him as a famous English big-game hunter, this because Quive-Smith fancies himself an experienced if much less-talented hunter also.

Thorndike claims that he never actually intended to assassinate Hitler, that through the years he lost all interest in killing wild animals and that rather stalking prey had become its own reward. To target but not actually shoot Hitler, the most closely guarded man in Europe, Thorndike says, was for him the ultimate challenge.

Quive-Smith almost believes him, but instead of executing Thorndike he orders him to sign a letter of confession admitting that he had in fact tried to assassinate Hitler. When Thorndike refuses, Quive-Smith and the Doctor lead him back into the mountains and push him off a cliff, intending to report his death as an accident. (This is neatly staged, the timing off-kilter to the point that the shove comes as a surprise.)

However, Thorndike freakishly survives the fall, and the next morning, as he regains consciousness, the Englishman desperately attempts to escape back home to England. And that's just the first part of the story.

Man Hunt is remarkable on several levels. I can't think of another Hollywood film before this specifically advocating the assassination of a sitting foreign leader, especially one with which America was not at war. Contrasting the aforementioned lengthy bit of German-only dialogue, the movie opens with a long, wordless set piece also bereft of underscoring, as Thorndike silently creeps through the foliage above Berghof. (The excellent high-def transfer adds vital texture to this opening.)

Later in the film is another standout sequence largely played without dialogue or music, as Thorndike is stalked through London's Underground by a German agent, Mr. Jones (John Carradine, more menacing here than in any of his horror roles). The chase, likely an influence on both The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), looks less like a Fox film from the 1940s than a German Dr. Mabuse movie made by Lang ten years before. The production design, credited to Richard Day and Wiard Ihnen, is extremely good.

Also innovative, though perhaps less consciously, and possibly more the book's influence than Lang's, is Thorndike's contradictory character. The movie is bravely ambiguous: the audience never knows for sure until the end whether Thorndike really intended to assassinate Hitler or not, and the dialogue and performances by Pidgeon and Sanders where this is finally revealed is especially riveting and believable. Conversely, Thorndike's gentleman hunter is too casually fearless at times. Even this sometimes almost works, however. One amusing bit has Thorndike mocking Germany's fanatical "Sieg Heil!" salute to Hitler.

Much of the picture is built around the relationship between Thorndike and a Cockney, not-quite prostitute, Jerry Stokes, played with shaky accent by Joan Bennett. (Canadian-born Pidgeon attempts no accent at all.) She instantly falls head-over-heels for the gentleman whose life she helps save, and though their relationship is sentimentalized, Bennett's sincere performance cuts through the syrup and makes it play as genuine devotion from an emotionally fragile, impressionable young woman.

There's also a nice, underplayed relationship between Thorndike and English cabin boy Vaner (12-year-old Roddy McDowall, in his first American film, made prior to his reteaming with Pidgeon for How Green Was My Valley). Interestingly, McDowall seems to be holding back on his British accent, much stronger in other films.

Credit Lang for Man Hunt being as good as it is. He reportedly filmed a key scene on a London bridge against studio head Darryl F. Zanuck's wishes, and though Lang officially was denied final cut apparently he snuck into the editor's room anyway, supervising its composition.

Video & Audio

Man Hunt looks great, and an absolutely must in high-definition to fully appreciate Arthur C. Miller's (The Blue Bird, How Green Was My Valley, The Ox-Bow Incident, etc.) superb cinematography. The high quality of the image suggests Fox accessed the original nitrate camera negative, so black are its blacks, so razor-sharp its image. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is also very good, catching as it does all the ambient sound of the forests and London's Tube. Optional English SDH are offered and the disc is limited to 3,000 units.

Extra Features

New for this release is an isolated score track (of Alfred Newman's intermittent music) and Julie Kirgo's liner notes. Also included, from the 2009 DVD version, is Patrick McGilligan's audio commentary, a making-of featurette ("Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt), and a trailer missing text and narration.

Parting Thoughts

A must-see, especially in Blu-ray format, Man Hunt is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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