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Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Man Hunt (1941)

Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Walter Pidgeon and Joan Bennett
I've seen a lot of Fritz Lang movies, having been stunned by M and Metropolis and so deliberately seeking out as many more as I could find. I was impressed to no small degree by films like Hangmen Also Die!, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. I even thoroughly enjoyed 1956's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the most recent film of his that I've seen thus far, though the quality of his films generally decreased as time went on, other films from the fifties like The Blue Gardenia, Moonfleet and While the City Sleeps leaving me surprisingly disappointed. The problem is that while some of his films are perennials on TV, my supply of Fritz Lang movies dried up at sixteen and I've only managed to see one more since 2007: Human Desire, again not one of his best, especially now I've seen the far superior original French movie that it remade. This one thankfully is much better.

Shortly before the war, as close as late July 1939, a British hunter called Alan Thorndike is holidaying in Bavaria and there is gifted with the biggest game of them all: Adolf Hitler, right there in the sights of his Hammond & Hammond. He even shoots him dead from 550 yards, or at least would have done had he a bullet in his rifle. When he loads that bullet, he's still only doing it to play the game, because it's the thrill of the chase that drives him. If he can get close enough to a game that doesn't want him to get close enough, then he knows he can kill and so actually doing so isn't necessary. Given what we know from history it won't surprise you too much to find that Hitler lives and we'll never know if Thorndike could have made the shot or not because he's interrupted by a patrolling German soldier, this being one of the most guarded buildings in the world, after all, and he's promptly delivered into the care of George Sanders.

While he was born in Russia and died in Spain, Sanders is often seen as the quintessential screen Englishman, or at least the quintessential English villain and he was indeed born to English parents. That seems strange given how often he got to play Nazis, especially in films like this made during wartime, and even more strange given that the Englishman he's up against was played by a Canadian, Walter Pidgeon. Both are solid but Sanders is better as Quive-Smith than Pidgeon is as Capt Thorndike, because he has the accent absolutely down, even to the German pronunciation of letters when spelling out a name over the phone. He also has the requisite monocle and at least initially the most gloriously absent-minded Nazi salute I think I've ever seen.

Quive-Smith knows of Thorndike, though they've never met, as he's a hunter too and given his name obviously has an English background himself. He has met Thorndike's brother though, Lord Risborough, who was there only a year earlier on an ill-fated mission of appeasement. Quive-Smith is more than happy to let Thorndike go, a free man, but only if he agrees to sign a document first stating that he was in Bavaria on an assassination mission for Her Majesty's Government. Needless to say he refuses to play ball and so Nazi doctor Ludwig Stössel and his men get to play with him for a while before they realise he isn't going to break and decide to drop him off a cliff instead in a fake suicide attempt.
Given that there's another eighty minutes left and the film is called Man Hunt, you can be sure he survives the drop and because he's a talented hunter he finds his way to a Danish ship bound for England and the able assistance of cabin boy Roddy McDowall. He's very young here, a mere thirteen years of age, but he was already an experienced hand, with sixteen films behind him already over four years. This is the earliest I've seen him though, a couple of years before even Lassie Come Home, but he's still utterly recognisable. His character, Vaner, manages to keep Thorndike safe from the Nazis searching the ship and even from the man he describes as a 'walking corpse' that books passage to England under Thorndike's name.

He's John Carradine, who had a long and chequered career in the movies, ascending to the heights and descending to the depths, but nobody could ever say he couldn't play sinister with the best of them. As tall and gaunt as ever, he looks like he could have escaped from a concentration camp but one look at his face, especially when emerging from the shadows into a London streetlight with his sword cane swinging and you could only believe he was one of the sadistic guards. The hunt is definitely on and we can't help but know it. This film was sponsored by the word 'sinister', because there's just so much product placement of it that it's impossible not to be caught up in the tension, especially given the quality of the people involved who we don't see.

The director is Fritz Lang, reminding us at points of his masterpiece of suspense known as M, especially with the odd clever use of sound and a mastery of the sort of shadows that film noir was born out of. The writer is Dudley Nichols, working from a serial novel by Geoffrey Household. Nichols was an Oscar winner five years earlier for The Informer, but with a string of great pictures to his name in the intervening years, not least Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din and Stagecoach. Cinematographer Arthur C Miller had credits going as far back as 1909 and was coming off the greatest swashbuckler of all time, 1940's The Mark of Zorro. It's a solid filmmaking team.

They don't just give us tension, though this is kept up admirably all the way to the final scene, which is inevitably pure propaganda given the subject matter and the timeframe. Tension is the point of the film, which in many ways is a reasonably simplistic chase yarn, albeit done well. There's also a notable lighter side that ensures that we can enjoy this as a film not just as a warning, which it was obviously intended to be. Lang had escaped Germany in 1933, after being offered the job of head of the German Cinema Institute by Hitler's propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. That job of course went instead to Leni Riefenstahl, who created Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Over the pond in the United States, Lang was making propaganda movies for the other side, like Hangmen Also Die! and this film.

Partly the lighter side is made evident through some subtly sparkling humour dotted here and there in odd dialogue, each time a deft touch rather than a broad gag, though Quive-Smith's cry of 'Today Europe! Tomorrow the world!' stretches a little. Partly though it's through the presence of Joan Bennett, as a perky young thing who saves Thorndike soon after he reaches London and sticks with him throughout. Somehow she's a joy, even though she's almost set up to fail. She's lumbered with the name of Jerry which is highly unfortunate given the circumstances, her character leans towards pouting contrariness far too often and she's a heavily accented Londoner played by an American actress. However Bennett provides one of the better American attempts at an English accent in a film refreshingly full of decent accents. This is yet another success for Lang, in a career full of them. I just wish I could find his films quicker.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You didn't mention The Woman In The Window, one of my faves.

Hal C F Astell said...

I'd love to have mentioned The Woman in the Window but that's one that I haven't managed to track down.

I'd really like to, not just because it's a Fritz Lang movie but also an Edward G Robinson movie. I've haven't found one of those I haven't enjoyed yet. Incidentally I did post a review of an older Eddie G movie last night, Two Seconds.