Man Hunt (1941)

Posted on the 18 April 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Man Hunt (1941)Among Classic Hollywood's German expatriates, Fritz Lang evinced the most bitterness towards his homeland. He considered Germany irredeemably sullied by its pact with Hitler, a view he maintained after World War II's end. It's reflected in movies like Hangmen Also Die! (1943), whose Gestapo villains are subhuman degenerates begging for extermination. Accordingly, Man Hunt (1941) struck one of Hollywood's first blows against Nazism. Lang's film generated controversy in still-neutral America, one censor labeling it a "hate film." If its "topical" antifascism plays stridently today, Man Hunt is still a first-rate thriller. British Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) goes hunting in Germany, stumbling across Adolf Hitler's private retreat. Thorndike takes aim at the Fuhrer only to be arrested. Thorndike insists it was a harmless "sporting stalk," but Gestapo Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) tortures him to confess. Thorndike escapes to England, tracked by Nazi agent Jones (John Carradine) and seeking refuge with Cockney girl Jerry (Joan Bennett). Hunted by Nazis and ostracized by the British government, Thorndike fakes his death in an effort to clear his name. Man Hunt's based on Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel, a pulp thriller encapsulating the fears of prewar England. Hence Lang provides a weightier riposte to Nazism than Hitchcock's frothy Foreign Correspondent. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols pens windy philosophic debates, arguing England must drop its civilized façade to beat Hitler. English appeasers aren't misguided but budding Quislings; Germans range from genteel monsters to swinish spies. In this regard, Man Hunt falls into the Stanley Kramer trap: brave in its day, today it seems stilted.Man Hunt (1941)Yet Lang often balanced sermonizing with entertainment. If Man Hunt's message occasionally clunks, Lang's narrative sense is well-attuned. Thorndike and Jerry's romance isn't a distraction but integral to the story, enlivened by snappy dialog and brusque humor. The effective Thorndike/Quive-Smith rivalry drives the narrative, two sportsmen matching wits and ideologies. And the finale's still strong enough to jolt modern viewers. Lang again invests genre fare with striking direction. Photographer Arthur C. Miller provides ace camera work, making foggy London as foreboding as M's Berlin (with smoky interior scenes recalling Lang's Dr. Mabuse movies). Lang draws on his silent roots with beautiful, wordless set pieces: the opening stalk, bloodhounds pursuing Thorndike through the German forests, Jones stalking him through the London Underground. As entertainment, Man Hunt scarcely puts a foot wrong. Walter Pidgeon makes a stiff but redoubtable hero - though he barely disguises his Canadian accent as an English gentleman. Joan Bennett's charming Cockney is a fine love interest. George Sanders provides his trademark suave swinishness, while John Carradine plays yet another cadaverous dastard. As Thorndike's relatives, Frederick Worlock and Heather Thatcher play creaky stereotypes. Roddy McDowall appears the same year as his breakthrough, How Green Was My ValleyMan Hunt ranks high among Lang's Hollywood movies. Clive Donner later remade it as Rogue Male (1976), downplaying the speechmaking for thriller dynamics. Yet Lang's film - tightly paced and stylishly directed - remains the classic.

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