BR: Man Hunt (1941)

October 11, 2014 | By

 

ManHunt1941_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  August 12, 2014

Genre:  Espionage / Suspense / War

Synopsis: A big game hunter is caught trying to assassinate Hitler, and becomes the hunted when he escapes and returns to England.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / 2009 featurette “Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt” (16:36) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Film Historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 

 


 

Review:

It’s hard not to assess this 1941 adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s best-selling 1939 novel without balancing the spotlight on director Fritz Lang, who wisely used the film, if not prior films for Fox (such as The Return of Frank James) to prove he could work within the American studio system after his ego had made the production of Fury (1936) at MGM most challenging.

Described as an autocrat (or perhaps more precisely, a marionette) with actors, Lang’s mania for directing every nuance of a performance is readily evident in Man Hunt, and yet, however one reacts to Joan Bennett’s most peculiar portrayal of a veiled prostitute, the quirks of his approach nevertheless make this wartime production a fascinating film – if not a slice of Lang working his style into an often tough-to-swallow plot, then a great piece of pulp with unsubtle political critiques.

Household was working for the British Secret Service prior to publishing his first novel (known as Rogue Male). His tale of a big game hunter sneaking into Germany to come as close as possible to pulling the trigger on Adolf Hitler before being discovered, arrested, tortured, and escaping back to England is a marvelous opening hook; if not for the huge risk factor and near absurdity of the concept, then the morality which screenwriter Dudley Nichols upgraded to question whether Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) loaded a bullet into the rifle’s chamber for thrill (a new detail addition by Nichols), or attempted to really assassinate Hitler in the name of saving humanity from a malevolent, murderous regime.

By making the hero’s own moral stance flawed – a thrill-seeker who may well have attempted to pronounce judgment and execute a figure without trial – it allows Thorndike’s guilt to stew under a mask of innocence during the course of the film.

After his capture, Thorndike goes through a process of gradual mental destruction, as administered by Nazi captor Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders): first there’s a civil discussion, then insults, a stern request to admit guilt in writing, and then brutality meted out by the Gestapo.

It’s perhaps in this early (and lengthy sequence) where interrogating reveals the filmmakers’ interventionist stance, using dialogue and Thorndike’s helpless predicament as a rallying cry for the U.S. to help Britain fight off Nazi aggression when the American government forbade any measures and efforts to meddle in Europe’s second percolating, epic war. (As pointed out in both the making-of featurette and Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan’s audio commentary, the film was being investigated by the government for breaking the country’s Neutrality laws and being a hate film when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII halted that process.)

This ongoing effort to justify intervention makes Man Hunt a genuine wartime time capsule, but there’s also the unusual brutality which Lang was quite comfortable in depicting, either in shadow or directly onscreen.

Torture – and glee of its perpetrators – were not new to Lang’s canon (torture and suffering were readily apparent in his 1931 masterwork Testament of Dr. Mabuse and pure comic book exotica in his Indian epic diptych Tiger from Eschnapur and Indian Tomb), but it’s the sheer meanness that permeates Man Hunt which is still surprising: it’s unimaginable how 1941 audiences reacted to the concept of a (Nazi) doctor reviving Thorndike for further torment and a pivotal cliff side ‘push’; the off-screen fate of the heroine; and Quive-Smith’s vicious interrogation of a trapped Thorndike in the film’s final scene (not to mention an especially graphic demise that follows).

Other Langian elements include an assortment of chase scenes (after hours in the damp streets of London, or a subway system’s tunnel substituting as a cave system), superb lighting and composition by veteran cinematography Arthur C. Miller, and risqué elements stemming from Nichols’ addition of faux love interest / heroine Jerry Stokes (Bennett), who was originally designed as a hooker who aides Thorndike, but devolves into a ‘seamstress’ to keep the Production Code pinheads content (and enable the film to acquire a seal of approval).

As McGilligan details, Jerry’s filmic persona is wholly bizarre: she’s played up like a hyper child, all whiny and smitten with older man Thorndike who sees her as a cute kid instead of a potential lover. There’s no doubt Lang directed the actress’ litany of small childish gestures: whether it was out of a need to make Jerry a little odd, or appease the censors’ concerns that Jerry might ‘grow into a woman’ and be perceived as both a hooker and a lover, she’s the strangest character in the film, and often distracts Lang’s formal scenes which make Man Hunt a pulpy spy thriller. (The comedic scenes with Thorndike’s family and some goofy banter also feel as ill-placed efforts to lighten the film’s otherwise mean tone.)

Man Hunt is filled with weird contrasts, but it all somehow works thanks to Lang’s fast pacing (the director knew how to package and pace pulp like no other, slowing down stalking scenes to extract beautiful tension), some solid dialogue, the effective intermingling of German and English in select scenes, and Bennett’s genuinely strong performance; however one feels about Jerry, there’s no doubt Bennett gave the role her full effort in order to break free from her prior screen image.

And although Roddy McDowall (in his American film debut) is criticized for being a bit too wide-eyed and demonstrative, it suits the role of a kid hungry for excitement while his days are spent running errands for the crew of a merchant ship. Lang paces both McDowall’s performance and his shots for maximum tension. (Prime example: McDowall pulling away a rug to reveal a trap door where Thorndike can hide. The angle and two-movement motion of the rug pulling is magnetic – validating McGilligan’s observations that Lang’s handling of simple cutaways and inserts weren’t purely for control, but to maintain artistic continuity.)

Alfred Newman’s score (also available on CD from La-La Land Records) is okay – its ‘evil Nazi’ and ‘something’s a-stirring’ motif is too obvious, and the love theme makes Jerry’s whiny fits, crying, and forced smiles more surreal, but as McGilligan states, the score style was likely pre-designed / mandated by Fox, which wanted impose something conventional to temper Lang’s edgy approach.

Man Hunt was originally released on DVD in 2009, but based on the extras and cover design (it’s almost identical to the single-image sleeve art Fox used for their John Ford sets + John Wayne’s The Big Trail) there’s a sense it was part of the studio’s last gasp at special editions DVDs for its classic film catalogue.

Although still in print on DVD, Fox never upgraded Man Hunt to Blu-ray, which is where Twilight Time stepped in and ported over the extras plus an isolated mono music track of Newman’s score, and an essay by resident historian Julie Kirgo, who provides an overview of this gem once proposed to director John Ford. (What’s curious is how cinematographer Miller, composer Newman, star Pidgeon, and actor McDowall were reunited for Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, made the same year.)

McGillian’s commentary is very mixed: it starts off filled with production minutia read from fact-packed notes, but soon breaks up from pauses and the author stating the screen obvious; at best. McGilligan’s commentary can be regarded as a slight expansion of the main historical material that’s already present in the excellent making-of featurette.

The HD transfer is first-rate, and Fox has done a wonderful job in upgrading their prior transfer with this crisp effort that features detail, film grain, and alluring luminescent cinematography. (The nighttime non-love scene between Thorndike and a teary-eyed Jerry is especially gorgeous.) One hopes this is the first of further Fox-Lang productions, especially the Technicolor films The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941).

 

Wrap-Up

Bennett and husband Walter Wanger soon formed a production company, and the actress starred in Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and Secret Beyond the Door (1947).

Household’s novel was later remade under its original title Rogue Male in a 1977 TV movie by director Clive Donner starring Peter O’Toole as Thorndike / Sir Robert Hunter and John Standing as Quive-Smith.

Household’s concept of assassinating Hitler in 1939 may have seemed unique (if not risqué in writing a work of fiction in which a sitting head of state is assassinated for being a menace to humanity), but as the 2003 docu-drama hybrid Killing Hitler illustrated, in 1940 Britain set up a secret unit to handle ‘irregular warfare’ and analyze the possibility and procedures of knocking off Hitler prior to the von Stauffenberg plot in 1944.

 

 

© 2014 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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