Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall and Heather Thatcher, among others.
One of Fritz Lang's first American productions after having fled Nazi Germany, and one of several films at the time with the purpose of encouraging America to enter World War II (among for example To Be or Not to Be, 1942).
Released only six months before America entered World War II, Man Hunt served two purposes: The first one being to enlighten the American public of what was going on in Europe at the time and the terrible reign of the German dictator, the second purpose being for Fritz Lang to re-introduce himself as a master director to the studio bosses who hadn't seen or even heard of his German masterpieces.
Not five minutes into the film we have uncovered a plot to kill Hitler. It is the skilled gunman Captain Thorndike (Pidgeon) who has managed to come close to the Führer's quarters, but my pure bad luck he is discovered before he can fire his gun. He is brought into questioning with one of the headmen of the Nazi organization, a Mr. Quive-Smith (Sanders, who convincingly speaks both German and English). Quive-Smith tries to convince Thorndike to sign a document which states that he acted on the orders of the British Government, obviously in order for Germany to have a reason to start a war. Thorndike refuses, manages to escape and get back to England on a ship (with a little help from a cute British boy, played by a very young Roddy McDowall).
He arrives in a dark, foggy and threatening London that is full of Nazi agents. He is rescued by a cute Cockney girl called Jerry (Bennett), that immediately falls in love with him and gives him a break in being chased by the German government and teaches him to eat fish and chips with his fingers. The Nazi agents di however soon catch up with him, resulting in a final showdown à la Rambo with Thorndike in a cave and Quive-Smith standing outside waving with the document and a pencil.
Man Hunt is a surprisingly overlooked Lang gem, that is far more than a simple propaganda film with a baked in love story. The interaction between Pidgeon and Bennett is both convincing and interesting: while it is clear that Jerry has fallen head over heels for Thorndike, he has rather more paternal feelings for her - kissing her on the forehead, tucking her into bed and offering her economical safety. Whether that is because of him being chased by Nazis and not daring to get emotionally involved with anyone, or if there is another reason, that remains unknown. Their final scene together is beautiful, sad and frustrating - what is about to become their first kiss is interrupted by the sound of a policeman's footsteps. And then they never meet again.
Although I probably will see any film with George Sanders in the cast, this was a very satisfying film experience. Not unlike what Tarantino does today, Lang has allowed all Germans in the film to speak German instead of, well, the usual English-with-a-weird-accent. Hearing Sanders shout out orders in German (although with a slight English accent) was surprising - and very impressing.
Lang certainly made his own thing with the assignment of making a anti-Nazi propaganda film. I can't imagine another director picturing London in such a nightmarish light. And no wonder, with his German Expressionism background and dark masterpieces like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) behind him. The most amazing shot in the whole film must be when Jerry returns to her apartment after the goodbye on the bridge, only to see this:
Gaah! I would confess to anything with that picture in front of me. It's funny that Lang chose to have the villain wear a monocle, with that being his own personal trademark.
Watching the making-of documentary I learned a few interesting trivia. Before Lang (that was a Jew) fled Germany in 1933, he was supposedly asked my the Nazi propaganda minister himself, Joseph Goebbels, to direct Nazi-glorifying films for the Party. I guess that was before they turned to Leni Riefenstahl.
Lang's wife, script wright Thea von Harbou, was a Nazi herself, and did not follow her husband to the USA. They divorced in 1933, the same year Lang fled.
Fritz Lang with his wife, Thea von Harbou, in 1924.
The other interesting thing I learned was that Bennett's character Jerry was supposed to be a prostitute, but due to the Code they had to change her profession. Lang did however keep a lot of references and indications of the original idea in the movie, a fact that delivers quite a few humorous moments in the film.
Lang and Bennett connected on the set of this film, and I am now quite curious of their other collaborations: The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Until then, I will just have to underline once more that Man Hunt is a great film, and much more than what the studio bosses intended it to be.
Quive-Smith delivers a gift to Thorndike in the cave: Jerry's beret on a stick.