1930s, 1940s, Fritz Lang, Review, Thriller

Man Hunt

#18 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Fritz Lang made a quality John Ford film in Western Union, and then he made a quality Alfred Hitchcock film in Man Hunt. Echoing Hitchcock’s later British period like The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and his early Hollywood film Foreign Correspondent (of which I’m convinced this was made in partial response to), Man Hunt feels like any of dozens of thrillers made during and after WWII where Nazis became easy antagonists, except that it was made before America got involved in the war. Released in June of 1941, 6 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was part of a series of films made by an activist studio system that wanted to advocate for America to go over there. That historical footnote aside, though, Lang did make an effective Hitchcock clone, an entertaining thriller with a charming lead and several wonderfully tense sequences.

Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is on what he calls a sporting stalk, an effort to stalk prey without killing it, except he’s not stalking lions in Africa, he’s stalking Adolf Hitler in the days before he invaded Poland and appeasement was all the rage in England. Getting on top of a cliff a thousand yards from the German Fuhrer’s porch at his remote, mountain getaway, Thorndike gets Hitler in his sights, seems satisfied, and then suddenly decides to load a road into his rifle. He’s caught by a Nazi patrolmen before he can do anything more, though, and he’s brought before the Nazi officer Quive-Smith (George Sanders, who was also in Foreign Correspondent). Quive-Smith tries to coax a confession out of Thorndike that he had come with the expressed purpose of assassinating Hitler and at the British government’s orders, both of which Thorndike deny. He was on a sporting stalk on his own, is all. Well, Quive-Smith won’t allow such things to go unpunished, and he takes Thorndike up to the cliff and pushes him off in an effort to make his death look like an accident instead of the Nazi’s executing the brother of a member of the House of Lords.

Thorndike survives, gets on a ship bound for England with the help of a nice young man (Roddy McDowall) and pursued by a man, Mr. Jones (John Carradine), who carries Thorndike’s own passport as his own. The Germans are chasing him all the way back to England. He enlists the help of a young woman named Jerry (Joan Bennett), Thorndike gets to his brother Lord Risborough (Frederick Worlock), and determines that if he were to go to the authorities, the current British policy would lead to giving Thorndike up to Germany which would lead to his execution. The only solution is to run.

This is a long series of events, and it’s all carried lightly on Walter Pidgeon’s shoulders. He’s not quite as debonair as someone like Cary Grant, but the Canadian-American actor (the explanation for his accent is given in a single line of dialogue about how much time he spends in Canada) is charming and likeable as he navigates the perils set before him. Joan Bennett (and her thick, awful to listen to, cockney accent) doesn’t drag the film down, but the focus turns to their little romance a little too much at the expense of the suspense elements in the middle section. They’re a nice couple, but the thriller seems to fall away completely for too long.

As the chase continues, we get several wonderfully tense suspense sequences. There’s one in a subway station that’s really quiet, filmed like a silent film, and ends with a bang that’s really nice. The final showdown between Thorndike and Quive-Smith, who has come to England to finish the job he started in Germany, is also really strong. It involves a cave with one small entrance and a makeshift window, a jerry-rigged bow, a touching memento of a lost character, and the will to act. It’s the sort of stuff that Hitchcock was doing in his sleep at this point in his career, so seeing it handled so well by Lang, who hadn’t made a whole career out of thrillers (his Dr. Mabuse movies certainly count) is really fun to see.

The final minutes are pure, pro-British propaganda to convince Americans to help their English speaking brethren across the Pond, and it’s the one part of the film that has aged the most poorly. It’s complete agitprop that was never going to work out of the moment.

Without a charming lead like Pidgeon, Man Hunt would be more of a drag than it is, proving the necessity of the movie star. With someone more charming like a Cary Grant or Robert Donat it might have been even more fun. I also think the romance needed to be broken up a bit, maybe have her on the boat instead of little Roddy McDowall to introduce her twenty minutes earlier. That way we don’t have to effectively stop the rest of the movie to squeeze in all of the romantic stuff before they have to go their separate ways.

Still, the strong lead and several wonderfully tense suspense sequences carry what amounts to a pretty standard chase film. It’s another effort of Lang mimicking another, more commercially successful director’s style, and he does it well again. It seems like Lang was still trying to find his place in Hollywood, given a certain freedom with a shared hatred of Naziism with his producers while also needing to chase some kind of financial wins. That it still works as a thriller 70 years later instead of straight agitprop is a success on its own as well.

Rating: 3/4

8 thoughts on “Man Hunt”

  1. Ah, the movie where Fritz Lang dares to say the Nazis are bad people.

    This bored me, it did not thrill. After the giddy quality of Western Union, I had high hopes for this. I put the blame on the script and source material. I simply didn’t buy that Walter Pidgeon was “just” on a stalk. Him loading the rifle proved that and when he confessed it long after, it honestly killed my sympathy for him. This is no ‘wrongfully accused’ man…which is trope Fritz Lang and the movie tries to go for. Again. Again!

    It’s full of speechifying, small and large, and it doesn’t do it nearly as well as Casablanca did. Again, I blame the writing and, yes, also the performances.

    George Sanders is the standout for me, this is off-brand for him as he’s usually playing English cads but he’s a better performer than anyone else in here.

    The camera work is good, I like the black and white, but the locations were better in Western Union and we’ve seen better cinematography from Fritz before. I’m amused by the frequent use of John Carradine. The joke is that he was in every movie and it’s starting to feel like it. Honestly, he’s solid and not showy, not here in his early (?) career. No scenery chewing or speechifying as he will later in life.

    And, having made my own bows and crossbows, the improvised weapon at the end made me roll my eyes. Again, I blame the script but…no. That’s not how that works and no, it’s not going to be a lethal weapon. A fucking pointed stick would have been better.

    Writing matters and this is not well-written.

    Didn’t like, won’t re-watch. Honestly I want my time back from this.

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    1. The stalking question is more about a man admitting to himself that action is needed. He’s a civilized man facing an uncivilized time, so he approaches it intellectually as a game because he can’t face the pending evil, and his id takes over, telling him what he should do. It’s an internal conflict about action in a time of inaction, especially when there’s the implication that his own government would give him up to the Germans to preserve the peace.

      The timing of the film’s production is also important. It was released 6 months before Pearl Harbor, when going to war in Europe wasn’t exactly a unanimous thing. So, daring to say Nazis are bad and should be confronted with might was actually a bit of a daring thing to say in early 1939 in America.

      I think it works outside of that context because of the rather standard way that the Nazis are treated as antagonists in the film. They’re any big bad in any thriller, especially after the action moves to England and it gains a more standard thriller characteristic, though it is undercut by the dominance of the romance subplot that suddenly dominates for a while.

      I enjoyed it as a rather basic thriller with enough interesting historical footnotes, both in terms of Hollywood’s attitude towards moving America towards war in Europe as well as the contrast of Lang advocating for war on his own, home country, that may not raise it artistically but makes it slightly more fascinating as a result.

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