#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.