Film: Man Hunt ***
Release Date: 31st January 2011
Running time: 106 mins
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders
In June 1941, the United States was still reluctant to be drawn into the conflicts raging in Europe and Asia; it’s hard to imagine, therefore, how their cinema audiences reacted to Austrian born Fritz Lang’s controversial film Man Hunt, based on Geoffrey Household’s novel ‘Rogue Male’, especially as Hollywood’s self-censorship board already strongly objected to the picture’s supposed lack of balance.
Alan Thorndike (Pidgeon), dressed in full hunter garb, clutches a powerful rifle in his hand; he has in his sights a target that needs no introduction: Hitler, relaxing at his mountain retreat. Thorndike pulls the trigger, but no shot rings out, because this is a “sporting shoot” - the thrill is all in the chase.
Loading the gun with a real bullet, Thorndike is discovered by a guard, who beats him unconscious. Awaking in the custody of Major Quive-Smith (Sanders), he is threatened with torture unless he falsely confesses to being an assassin sent by the British government.
Refusing and left for dead, Thorndike escapes with the help of a cabin boy aboard a Danish hauler. Safely back in London, he is still pursued by the adversary, but a chance meeting with prostitute Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) gives him the upper hand, and maybe another reason to survive…
It’s certainly worth pointing out that Lang had been Germany’s leading filmmaker (Metropolis, M) before he ditched the country, along with his wife Thea Von Harbou, a party member of the Nazis, in 1934. His views could easily have been forced down the throats of movie-goers (he went on to make four anti-Nazi films), but instead he concentrated on storytelling, and although the resulting film must’ve given him great pleasure, Man Hunt still captivates not because of hindsight, but because of its substance, structure and style.
The opening scene isn’t as powerful as it would’ve been back in the forties but it’s still a fascinating trigger, merely because it could’ve taken the script into realms of fantasy Lang wasn’t afraid to explore. That’s not to say it’s a disappointing outcome, even if time gone by suggests Thorndike’s decision making leaves a lot to be desired.
The slow and deliberate introduction is arguably the film’s finest moment, ruined slightly by the sudden cutaway during Thorndike’s scuffle with the soldier. Starting so well is obviously a problem, because what you’re left with is Pidgeon’s character being hunted and harassed whilst he does everything in his power to avoid confrontation. But, other than an impressively tense scene in the Underground, there’s little here that rivals the thrills of the opening gambit.
Luckily, Joan Bennett manages to solve such a problem with a character that annoys and delights in equal measure – that is, until she finally manages to win the audience over with an innocence that rivals Hepburn. Her infuriating cockney accent long since forgotten, replaced by an impassioned presence difficult to resist (especially for Lang, who would hire her for another three roles), Bennett turns this controversial thriller into a will-they-won’t-they-get-together romantic drama, with an ending more Roman Holiday than Breakfast at Tiffanys.
Walter Pidgeon, tall, dark and handsome, also excels as the leading man, and although he frustrates at times with his character’s inability to recognise a gorgeous woman when she’s standing in front of him, misunderstood prostitute or not, he does ooze charm and much comedic Englishness. So much so, a seemingly worthless scene in which Bennett and Pidgeon eat fish and chip has more chemistry dripping off the screen than grease soaking the newspaper it was wrapped in. A shame then that Thorndike would rather read the headlines.
As would Lang, who throughout decides to let the audience think the worst rather than show it. A scene involving Thorndike, being grilled post beating, is strange because there is one long static shot of the chief tormentor, while other characters are mere silhouettes, and only a shadow of the chair Thorndike is strapped into protruding the bottom right hand corner of the screen. It’s a bit like having rubbish theatre tickets, with a pillar obstructing half of the stage. Interesting, yes, as is the opening in which a word of dialogue isn’t spoken for almost ten minutes, but the chase scenes are handled in a more user friendly manner, whether it’s dogs or the “walking corpses” stalking our main protagonist; the latter including an impressively electrifying finale on the tracks.
Why Thorndike suddenly decided to load the gun and take a shot at Hitler is never made clear, and his constant denial throughout the rest of the movie doesn’t sit right, so instead of seeking revenge for what happened to him, he takes it on the chin like a frustrating English gentleman would. It would be nice to see him get a little angry every once in a while, and viewers will also be disappointed with Lang’s decision to discard the romance, even if the couples parting is a highlight.
Lang’s London has never looked more creepy, but shadows don’t hide everything, and this engaging thriller is let down by passable thrills, abandoned romance, and a hero more chilled than a pint of Becks on a winter’s day.