MAN HUNT —-would you kill someone? What would it take? Self-defense is one thing: cold-blooded homicide another. What if the person in your telescopic sight was Adolph Hitler? Don’t tell me you have to think it over…
When this fanciful but gripping thriller came out in June of 1941, the war in Europe had been going (badly for the good guys) for 21 months, yet America’s surprise entry was six months in an unknown future; isolationism still ran deep. Senate hearings that fall mentioned this film as an example of Hollywood “war mongering”. Germany’s declaration of war on the US, four days after Pearl Harbor, put the right-wing windbags on hold (until the war was safely won). Meanwhile, this Fritz Lang-directed adventure hit #37 of the years earners, grossing $4,520,000. *
Bavaria, summer of ’39: English big-game hunter (and complete gentleman) ‘Captain Alan Thorndyke’ (Walter Pidgeon) is seized by the Nazis after an apparent attempt on the Fuhrers life. Escaping (rather miraculously) and making his way to London, the roughed-up yet unruffled sportsman is pursued by enemy agents (George Sanders and John Carradine) and befriended by a Cockney prostitute (Joan Bennett). Murderous encounters on one hand, touching companionship on the other, both measured out in pleasing balance in the bantering screenplay by Dudley Nichols.
At 43, with 15 years in the business and 51 movies already on his resume, the easy-going, mellow-voiced Walter Pidgeon was never exciting, but he was steady and reliable and in 1941, lucky, as this choice part gave him his most actionful role, then was matched by a strong lead in John Ford’s lovely How Green Was My Valley. Several years of hits and two Oscar nominations followed suit.
Joan Bennett’s Cockney accent is variable, but she overcomes that with charm and spirit as the ‘working girl’ who’s treated like a lady by the gentle and gallant hero, and melts as a result. Censors had migraines with the character, per a memo snitting “that this objection could be easily overcome if ‘Jerry’ were to use some other garb than a tam-o’-shanter, a trenchcoat, and a bag dangling at the end of her wrist, which three articles are inescapable symbols designating prostitutes”. Cap, coat and clutch be damned, director Lang was suitably impressed and smitten: she’d soon deliver three of her best performances for him (The Woman In The Window, Scarlet Street and Secret Beyond The Door).
Stalking on the vile side, George Sanders and John Carradine make worthy adversaries. Sanders eloquent sneers and Carradine’s corrupt gazes demand memorable demises.
Though the plot has credibility holes you could hit with a pumpkin catapult, the dialogue is fun, the players give it verve, and best of all, it’s directed by the masterful Fritz Lang, who wrings style and suspense out of the wishfulness. With dramatic assist in the atmospheric melding of shadows and light from cameraman Arthur C. Miller and by Alfred Newman offering an energetic score, Lang’s adult chase movie amped up the stakes and velocity in the looming face-off with Reich und Friends.
With a plucky lad named Roddy McDowall (12, in his first Hollywood film: he’d logged 16 parts in England), Frederick Worlock, Heather Thatcher, Ludwig Stossel, Roger Imhof and Kurt Kreuger. 105 minutes.
* Most people didn’t know Pearl Harbor from pearl earrings until Dec.7th, 1941, but the ramp-up to deal with the obvious ogre across the Atlantic was picking up screen-steam via A Yank In The R.A.F., 49th Parallel and Sergeant York.
I Wanted Wings and Dive Bomber were basically lavish service commercials and comedies goaded with Buck Privates, Keep ‘Em Flying, In The Navy and Caught In The Draft. Draft-laffs dried up on Dec. 8th. By roundabout suggesting the assassination of the leader of a country we were not yet officially at war with (a nation many of our ‘patriotic’ industries were happily making profits off), Man Hunt’s itchy trigger finger moved into ‘lock and load’ territory. The script was taken from Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel with the brassy handle “Rogue Male“. It was remade, with that title, in 1976, starring Peter O’Toole.
The author, who described himself as a ”sort of a bastard by Stevenson out of Conrad”, further clarified: ”Style is enormously important to me and I do try to develop my hero as a human being in trouble. Although the idea for “Rogue Male” germinated from my intense dislike of Hitler, I did not actually name him in the book as things were a bit tricky at the time and I thought I would leave it open so that the target could be either Hitler or Stalin. You could take your pick.”
In 1944, the British plotted “Operation Foxley”, a gambit to kill the dictator, using parachuted snipers, at his Alpine retreat outside Berchtesgarden, but it was shelved.