Wednesday, January 6, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Man Hunt (1941)

                “Man Hunt” was one of the first anti-Nazi movies to come out of Hollywood before U.S. entry into WWII.  It was directed by Fritz Lang ("Ministry of Fear").  Lang was born in Austria and although raised Roman Catholic, he was classified by the Nuremberg Laws as a Jew.  He emigrated to America and resumed his movie-making career in Hollywood.  It was his choice to film the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.  The novel got positive reviews for its taut and exciting spy chases.  The movie also did well for the same reasons.  It is propagandistic, but Lang does not let his personal feelings ladle it on too thick.  By the way, Daniel Zanuck tried to keep Lang from having editorial control for fear the movie would be too harsh on the Nazis.  Lang secretly edited it anyhow which partly explains why the movie manages to violate the Hays Office rule of having some good Germans to balance the bad ones.
lil' Roddy McDowell

                Walter Pigeon plays renowned big game hunter Alan Thorndike.  The movie opens with him stalking Hitler at Berchtesgaden.  When der Fuhrer appears in his sights, Thorndike at first pulls the trigger on an empty chamber.  He then puts in a live round, but before he saves the world, he is captured.  After being tortured off screen because the Hays Office refused to allow the showing of Nazi brutality, Thorndike is interrogated by a monocled Nazi named Maj. Quive-Smith (George Sanders).  Thorndike insists he was just doing a “sporting stalk” (a better title for the movie) and had no intention of killing Hitler.  Monocle wants Thorndike to sign a confession that he intended to kill Hitler and he was working for the British government.  He, of course, refuses. Option two is to throw Thorndike off a cliff.  He survives the fall and a chase straight out of a Mississippi chain gang film.  Thorndike stows aboard a Danish ship where he is aided by a cabin boy named Vaner (Roddy McDowell in his first role – he had been evacuated to the States from Blitz-ravaged London).  Back in England, Thorndike is tailed by a sinister “walking corpse” named Jones (John Carradine acting by muscle memory).  Thorndike takes refuge with a cockney lass named Jerry (Joan Bennett).  She’s a prostitute except that the Hays Office insisted a sewing machine be placed in her flat so maybe she is a seamstress or something.  Jerry and Alan have their own theme music – “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.  It’s both of their ring tones.  Jerry introduces him to fish and chips and eating with your fingers and he shows her how a gentleman pulls a chair out for a lady.  Thorndike uses the word “minions” to describe his pursuers who are so persistent that he ends up hiding in a cave.  This does not stop Monocle from finding him and coercing the confession out of him.  Thorndike is in the cross hairs like all the innocent animals he has slaughtered.  Unlike all his victims, he has the ability to fashion a weapon out of a bed slat, a belt, and poetically justified pin he had given to Jerry.
take the shot, damn it!

                “Man Hunt” was meant to be fun entertainment by a top-flight director, and it may have been for a 1940s audience.  However, I found it preposterous and too Old School to overcome its ridiculousness.  I recognize that the plot centering on a big game hunter stalking was not meant to be taken seriously, but reality seldom intrudes anywhere in the script.  Much of it makes no sense.  Why wouldn’t the Gestapo put him on trial?  Surely, this would have been more damaging to Great Britain than a confession.  Kudos for jumping right into the woods outside Hitler’s lair.  That at least spared us getting him to that locale. I am not looking forward to a prequel.  The movie also deserves credit for not subtitling the Germans so we are not clear on what their plans are.  Monocle talks in English, of course.  There are some interesting twists, including the death of a major character, but some of the twists are used to advance to the exciting conclusion in a way that could only happen in a movie where a big game hunter tries to kill Hitler, escapes back to England, and then is tracked down to his cave hiding place.  Speaking of which, the movie is full of stereotypes.  Besides the monocled villain, we also get the “seamstress” with a heart of gold, the cadaverous hit man, and the suave upper class Brit.  The actors are game and Bennett brings a lot of verve to her role.  There is a cute interlude between Jerry and an upper class woman.  The truth is that without her, the movie would be unmemorable (other than the absurd plot).  It is also a kick seeing Roddy McDowell.

queue "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" 
                I am sure there are fans of “Man Hunt”.  You know who you are – Fritz Lang fan boys and girls.  I don’t mind fantasy in my war movies.  Give me a monster rhino in “300” any day. Stick around for the last ten minutes of the movie and tell me it is not more fantastical than “300”.  In those last ten minutes you will witness the silliest killing of a Nazi in any WWII movie.  And the post script – hilarious!  I would like to see the sequel.

 GRADE  =  D


  1. Have you seen the remake with Peter O'Toole? It's closer to the original novel and tones down the speechmaking. I like Man Hunt but it's kind of a mess, like all of Lang's wartime movies.

    1. I looked for it on Netflix and You Tube, but no luck. I would love to see it and would not be surprised if it is better.


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