Man Hunt (1941) dir. Fritz Lang
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, John Carradine, George Sanders, Roddy McDowell
During WWII Hollywood produced a number of great propaganda films under the guise of traditional cinema entertainment. Unfortunately Fritz Lang’s Hollywood production of "Man Hunt", recently dug up and cleaned up by Fox, is not one of them.
Fritz Lang, the German ex-pat who made some of the greatest German films ever, is the ideal person to fight back against the Nazis with cinema propaganda. Unfortunately it’s a slapdash affair, an unfocused, poorly acted and sometimes completely illogical spy story. Taking place just before the war, in the opening we see a British sharpshooter, Capt. Alan Thorndike, (Walter Pidgeon) perched on the crest of a hill in the Bavarian mountains taking aim at none other than Adolf Hitler. Before he gets to take his shot he’s captured. His captor, a monocled Gestapo man Quive-Smith (George Sanders) – Note: Lang himself, was famous for wearing a monocle - desperately tries to beat out a signed confession that he was acting on behalf of the British government, but to no avail. Thondike escapes, thus beginning the ‘man hunt’.
The hunt takes him from the Bavarian hills eventually finding a British freighter ship bound for England. In pursuit is Quive-Smith and his tough assassin, Mr. Jones, played by John Carradine. Though he makes it to England, he’s still not safe. When he runs into a kindly cockney street gal, Jerry (Joan Bennett) he’s forced to bring her along in the chase. Jerry and Alan form a platonic bond, which might just be Thorndike’s Achilles Heel for the Gestapo.
Even beyond the presence of Mr. Lang, all the ingredients would suggest a cool little studio production. Fox vet Arthur Miller’s cinematography is top notch, most of the exteriors shot with a wonderfully moody layer of thick London fog, dramatically lit like Lang’s expressionistic days. Alfred Newman, one of cinema’s all-time great composers delivers a decent suspenseful score, some of the cues sounding eerily similar to John Williams' work in Star Wars.
None of these technical elements can distract us from the ridiculous adventure plotting. The opening act sets up a clever nod to “The Most Dangerous Game” – a world famous hunter trying to score the world’s most dangerous prey, Da Fuhrer himself. When Alan moves to the British freighter, young Roddy McDowell’s appearance in the film as a deckhand changes the gears toward relationships and comedy, but with the close quarters, an even greater threat against Alan. For the second and third acts, Thorndike is in London, his home turf, a place one would think he would be safe. Somehow he feels as endangered as he was in Germany. In the real world the chase could have ended in a split second if he just ran into a police station and pointed his finger at his pursors.
Walter Pidgeon makes an uncharismatic hero, though a Canadian, not a Briton, his accent wavers constantly. And Joan Bennett, a New Jerseyian playing cockney? Yikes. Only John Carradine’s menacing and imposing figure is on the mark. The propaganda is laid on thick from the opening song La Marseillese, to the theme of xenophobic distrust at home. Lang constantly shows us cutaways to random people on the streets of London, watching Thorndike with shifty eyes, warning us of the subversive enemies who may lurk among us.
The final scene which has Thorndike hiding out in a cave (in Britain??) under siege by Quive-Smith is plain old head-scratching. And his finishing move against him, a makeshift bow and arrow made from Jerry’s hatpit, is simply pathetic.
There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood war propaganda – “Casablanca” smelled badly of it too – but in “Man Hunt” without real characters and legitimate suspense it smells even worse than a regular studio bomb.
“Man Hunt” is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment