Man Hunt

Not perhaps as successful in the USA as fellow German émigré Billy Wilder (both men were from Austria-Hungary; Lang was Viennese, Wilder Galician), Lang nevertheless made his mark on Hollywood. He is credited with making a major contribution to American film noir, particularly with The Big Heat in 1953. In 1944 he made Ministry Of Fear, and The Woman In The Window, a couple of films which are comparable with Hitchcock for their psychological twists and the foregrounding of an imperilled ‘innocent’. The ending of Ministry Of Fear, with Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds driving off for a new life together, always reminds me of the ‘happy’ ending to the first theatrical release of Blade Runner. Lang also made a western with one of the best titles you could think of, Rancho Notorious (1952).

I have read that Lang’s film of the British thriller-writer Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel Rogue Male caused a bit of controversy with Fox and the Hays office during production. The film was released in the summer of 1941, while the USA was still neutral. By December, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, America was at war. American alarm at Lang’s ‘hate film’ says something about the naivety of the Isolationist policy, but then it was a different world. The BBC dramatised Rogue Male in 1976 with Peter O’Toole in the lead.

Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon, Forbidden Planet), a famous English big-game hunter, gets Hitler in the sights of his hunting rifle at Berchtesgaden and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Loading his rifle he is distracted and then set upon by one of Hitler’s guards. Brought before a SS Major (George Sanders) who happens to be a fellow hunter, Thorndike insists that his actions were simply in the spirit of a ‘sporting stalk’ and he had no intention of shooting the Fuhrer.

The Nazis torture Thorndike, in an attempt to get him to sign a confession that he was plotting to assassinate Hitler for the British government, in order to achieve a propaganda coup. Thorndike refuses and the Nazis stage an ‘accident’ by pushing him off a cliff. Thorndike survives and returns to England but is pursued by the Major, posing as an Englishman, Quive-Smith, and various Gestapo thugs. He is befriended by Jerry Joan Bennett, a tart with a heart, and attempts to disappear, so that the Nazi propaganda machine cannot implicate him and, by association, the British government.

After a rather brilliant opening, was Thorndike about to shoot Hitler, the lengthy chat between hunter and captor rather takes some of the pace off the plot. Canadian Pidgeon’s transatlantic British accent is also at odds with suave Nazi George Sanders’ cultured tones. Of course, these damned Gestapo goons won’t understand a thoroughly English notion like a ‘sporting stalk’; Sanders is very cutting about British notions of ‘playing the game’. Thorndike escapes and is helped by plummy-voiced precocious English cabin-boy Roddy McDowall (Planet Of The Apes).

The pair are so thoroughly English that they are unable even to shake hands at the summation of the little cameo they play in the adventure. Thorndike lands in a London populated by pearly kings and queens, and Joan Bennett (Argento’s Suspiria was her final film in 1977), who’s ‘ere gorblimey’ accent is straight from the Hollywood stock company of the time. Alarmingly, Thorndike is unable to go to the authorities when he discovers that he himself is being stalked by Sanders’ Major Quive-Smith and a sepulchral John Carradine (Boxcar Bertha, Satan’s Cheerleaders) whom Thorndike kills on the London Underground.

In his final confrontation with Quive-Smith, Thorndike admits he would have shot Hitler, not for his own government but for himself and everyone that the Nazi regime has wronged. Quive-Smith has had Jerry murdered by this time. Having killed Quive-Smith, Thorndike survives a gunshot wound. As Thorndike recovers in hospital in a montage we see his relationship with Jerry against the outbreak of war. Thorndike joins the RAF and finally we see him parachuting over Berlin with his hunting-rifle strapped to his chest while a voiceover states that, however long it takes, a trained hunter is at large in the enemy’s heartland.

Man Hunt suffers from Lang’s evident desire to make a piece of propaganda when he would have done better to concentrate on making a good thriller. England is depicted as the usual set of clichés. Bennett’s Jerry, an effective performance despite the horrendous accent, had to die because social divisions could never countenance her and Thorndike making a go of it. There is little tension and the few action scenes are too peremptory to be gripping. The same way felt in the trading industry, the nail-biting suspense we experience with systems like Crypto code. The scenes are quite fast and take a deep conceptual understanding. Thus I would say to watch this more than once to get what the director has conveyed only then will you be able to understand the story.Imagine what Hitchcock could have done with John Carradine’s electrocution in the Underground. George Sanders is great as usual and it is a remarkable cast. It maybe effective as propaganda, but it’s not Lang at his best.