Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 30, 2014
Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, also known as “the other 1941 movie with Walter Pidgeon and Roddy McDowall,” starts as a tense “what if” story, becomes a taut thriller and ends up a rallying cry for England’s war effort, and through it all it never stops entertaining, never stops thrilling. It couldn’t have been easy directing propaganda efforts in the war years, knowing that no matter what artistry you injected into the movie, its main intent would be to rally support and bolster morale while the bombs fell but some directors handled it with aplomb. Fritz Lang was one such director and Man Hunt is one of the best propaganda efforts to emerge from the early war years.
MINOR EARLY PLOT SPOILERS BEGIN
Man Hunt begins, we are told, in Bavaria, shortly before the war. The movie was made in late 1940 so Britain had been at war with Germany for over a year when this film was released in January, 1941, and feelings were assuredly running high. Given the time it was made and the blitz (German air attacks) taking place over London, the opening scene must have surely struck a deep emotional chord with contemporary audiences. It opens with a slow crane-in down to a forest below before shifting to a tracking shot of footprints on the ground. The footprints belong to Captain Alan Thorndike, an internationally regarded big game hunter from Britain, played by Walter Pidgeon. The shot is deliberate and silent, no music, no dialogue, and very little ambient sound. Thorndike is a hunter, and an expert tracker, we will soon find out, and the shot tracks him until we find him positioning himself on a ledge, taking rifle in hand, adjusting the sight, and taking aim. It is then that the audience sees what he has in his sights: Adolf Hitler himself.
Thorndike adjusts the sight some more, spies Hitler closely, and pulls the trigger. Except, nothing happens. He had no bullet in his gun because he was just seeing, for curiosity sake, if he could, in fact, get Hilter in his sights. After clicking the trigger, he smiles and relaxes his body. Only then do we see the wheels turning in Thorndike’s head. He pulls out a bullet and loads it into the gun. He takes aim again and, it appears, is now intent on killing Hitler for real. He never gets the chance as he is tackled by a German soldier patrolling the area and brought in for questioning. The man doing the questioning is Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), who knows Thorndike by reputation as Quive-Smith is, himself, an avid hunter. Thorndike tells him he was doing a “sporting stalk,” that is, pursuing prey for the fun of it, not to actually shoot it. He never had any intention of shooting Hitler. Quive-Smith doesn’t believe him and we, the viewers, are none too convinced either. That’s when Quive-Smith draws up a confession that Thorndike was acting on orders from the British government to assassinate Hitler and demands Thorndike sign it. He refuses and Quive-Smith sends him away to be tortured into submission. When he refuses even after torture, Quive-Smith decides he’ll dump Thorndike’s body off a cliff and the world will be informed that Thorndike died in a tragic cliff accident while hunting. Despite what looks to be certain death, Thorndike escapes and the title of the movie takes over as the film becomes a tense thriller with Thorndike on the run and Quive-Smith in pursuit.
MINOR EARLY PLOT SPOILERS END
All of that occurs within the first ten or so minutes of the movie so it doesn’t reveal as much about the plot as it does the mood of the piece. The Nazis are set up early as vicious, cruel, murderers because, well, they were and Thorndike is set up as a man of principle. Eventually Thorndike ends up being assisted by a woman, Jerry (Joan Bennett), he meets up with when he’s on the run (he grabs her and takes her back to her apartment by force, setting up one of the thriller genre’s greatest cliches, that of the hero abducting a woman who ends up falling in love with him; see The Thirty-Nine Steps, Three Days of the Condor). Joan Bennett, does her level best to play cockney, and drops all her h’s in just the right places but every time she speaks, you can just hear her affecting the accent. You can also, underneath, pick up on her American accent sneaking through. Still, she has pluck, lots of it, and is central to one of the more shocking late-in-the-film plot developments.
The film does an excellent job of keeping the suspense tight throughout but it’s really near the end of the film that Lang and scriptwriter Dudley Nichols take it from a tense thriller to a piece with real gravity. Thorndike’s last act outburst is an emotional one that’s also revealing of a darker side he possesses, one willing to do whatever is necessary to expunge evil. Walter Pidgeon does a great job and despite the screenplay working against his character’s believability (he’s supposed to be a master evader as well as tracker, someone who can disappear into the landscape and yet he keeps foolishly going to the same person’s house he was tracked to the very first night), Pidgeon pulls it off.
George Sanders is always good and they account for his accent, later in the film, by having a character remark that he seems “too English,” when Sanders is posing as a Brit in pursuit of Thorndike. Sanders never seems scary (that’s reserved for John Carradine who is not only as great as always but as haunting as well), but he does seem ruthless.
The final minutes of the film, after the plot is resolved, show actual footage of London burning, of Hitler prancing around arrogantly, of Nazi planes bombing the city. In January of 1941, while the blitz still raged and America had yet to enter the war, it must have been a painful experience for some. The last words of the narrator assure the audience that somewhere out there there’s a man like Thorndike (while showing Pidgeon as a paratrooper), ready to kill Hitler as soon as he can get him in his sights. And that together, they can win. It’s propaganda but that doesn’t mean it’s without value. It’s also a damn good thriller and a powerful emotional experience. TCM is showing it tonight. It’s not as good as that other film in 1941 with Pidgeon and McDowall but it’s pretty damn good all on its own.
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