Friday, January 8, 2010

Man Hunt (1941)

Man Hunt
Director: Fritz Lang
USA 1941
105 min
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.


Anonymous said...

I actually have this saved to the dvr!

And like you, I'm watching it mainly for Sanders. ;-D

Lolita said...

Mmm, Sanders... My hero!

Samuel Wilson said...

Lolita, I thought Bennett came on a little too strong with that accent, and overall it's a minor movie for Fritz Lang, but it is fun with at least one fairly shocking twist, and Sanders could hardly do wrong at this point in his career.

The Vintage Vamp said...

You have such a cute blog site Lolita! :) And I LOVE that photo of Joan Bennett you have there at the end, simply GORGEOUS. I've not seen this movie yet, but after your review I'm definitely going to as the WWII theme is right up my alley. xoxo!

Mykal said...

Lolita: Very nice screen grabs. I can always tell how much you like a film buy how many screen shots you include.

I didn't know you were a Sanders fan! No one can steal a scene like Sanders. He even beat the daylights out of Olivier in Rebecca. When Sanders speaks - you listen. When he enters the frame, all eyes go to him. Have you seen him in The Picture of Dorian Gray? Outstanding. -- Mykal

Lolita said...

Samuel Wilson:
Bennett's accent didn't bother me, I thought it was very cute. But I know a lot of people are annoyed with it. And the combination of Lang and Sanders is just lovely in itself!

The Vintage Vamp:
Thank you! And the photo of Bennett is one I colorized myself, but I don't want to ruin the photos by writing that on them :) I recommend this film strongly! It's not a masterpiece, but definitely greater than most Hollywood productions.

Haha, I guess my opinions of a film is quite transparent before I even write anything ;) It's fun to locate good screenshots of a good film too, and the best way to give my readers insight to the film's cinematography.
I love Sanders! I always liked the sophisticated villains, and his voice is probably the most awesome one in the history of film. Stealing the spotlight from Olivier is admirable! And can you think of anyone but Sanders having the voice of Shere Khan?
I haven't yet seen Dorian Gray, but I have intended to for some time! Thanks for the tip :)

Christopher said...

I always loved this film in past..but when the DVD finally came out..It didn't hold up as well as I remembered..I still like it tho..mainly for Sanders..So glad you included TWO fotos of the fish-n-chips eating scene!..Joan Bennetts pretty cute in this..

Lolita said...

The DVD cover is awesome, by the way! At least the only one I've seen. Joan Bennett is a cutie pie alright!

Andreas said...

I was able to catch Man Hunt a couple months ago, and was very pleased - Lang is a master, and he managed to turn a propaganda movie into a dark, suspenseful, and political drama, with plenty of Sanders to boot. And how about that unexpectedly downbeat ending?

(Come to think of it, the drive to get America into the war may have been a huge boon for cinema: this, 49th Parallel, Foreign Correspondent...?)

C.C. Baxter said...

Definitely give Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window a go, they are both brilliant though again hampered by what they couldn't get away with back in those days.

Lolita said...

The ending was great, and by far the best one they could have chosen from post-code standards. Open endings can be pretty good, especially when they induce the right feelings - in this example a lust to fight for the right thing! (Or at least, the fight to destroy Hitler.)

C.C. Baxter:
Sounds good enough for me!