Here’s a good rule of thumb for all you would-be classic Hollywood heroes: If you are a professional hunter and you run into a dapper fellow who claims to be your biggest fan, run. He will always turn out to be a sociopath bent on hunting… you.
We’re shooting a certain Mr. Hitler
Man Hunt is a torn-from-the-headlines propaganda film. The hook? Walter Pidgeon is an English gentleman hunter who tries to hunt the biggest game of all: a certain Mr. Hitler. Things do go as planned (do they ever in movies?) and our hero is soon marked for death by the Nazis. George Sanders is a gestapo agent who has watched Pidgeon’s hunting career with admiration and now finds himself charged with chasing down the Englishman.
It’s a battle of wits in which the hunter becomes the hunted and even national borders provide no protection against his pursuers.
Stylishly directed by Fritz Lang, Man Hunt has developed a small but passionate following over the years. Let’s see if this propaganda piece holds up for the modern viewer.
After the review, I will briefly cover the careers of Fritz Lang and Walter Pidgeon, both veterans of silent cinema.
Man Hunt opens in Germany on the eve of World War II. The rugged Captain Thorndyke (Walter Pidgeon) is setting up a shot with his high-powered rifle. The audience gets a look down the rifle’s sites and we see that the target is Adolph Hitler. Thorndyke pulls the trigger and… the weapon was unloaded. Then he takes out a bullet and prepares to try again.
That’s when he gets caught, roughed up and taken to the villainous George Sanders. (We never learn the real name of Sanders’ character so I shall refer to him as Quive-Smith, a name he adopts later in the film.) Quive-Smith is a fan of Thorndyke’s exploits and is acquainted with his brother, who is Britain’s ambassador to Germany.
Thorndyke’s defense is novel. He says that he had no intention of killing Hitler, he was merely having a sporting stalk. For him, the fun of hunting is in the stalk and this was the biggest stalk of all.
Quive-Smith does not believe him. Would you? In any case, it all turns into a “you vill please sign ze document or ve have vays of making you sign” discussion. Do they ever sign? No, they do not and Thorndyke is no exception. Cue the torture.
But a problem arises. The government does not wish for the British ambassador’s brother to be found with marks of torture. Well, it’s a bit late for that. Quive-Smith tries once more to extract a confession and then hits on the very way to get rid of Thorndyke’s body without suspicion. Captain Thorndyke was hunting alone on a peak when the ground gave way and he fell to his death. Quive-Smith will stumble across the body the next day and everyone can hold a lovely funeral.
The problem is that Thorndyke survives the fall, crawls to a harbor, stows away on an England-bound ship and gets clean away. However, he underestimates the lengths that the Nazi government and Quive-Smith are willing to go to to get him back.
Thorndyke needs help and he finds it in the form of Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett, sister of silent star Constance Bennett). Jerry is a, ahem, “seamstress.” A seamstress who wears flashy clothes, comes home at two in the morning and keeps her money in her garter. Cleverly played, Mr. Lang, cleverly played.
The manhunt continues, punctuated by quieter scenes of Thorndyke and Jerry bridging their class divide and becoming friends. Meanwhile, Quive-Smith is steadily closing in on his prey…
Man Hunt is a propaganda film but it is also first-class entertainment. Modern suspense films are often relentless affairs but Man Hunt ebbs and flows, the contrast making the chase scenes much more nail-biting. The acting ranges from good to excellent. Walter Pidgeon goes a bit overboard at times but is generally quite capable in the lead. I loved Joan Bennett’s sassy character who combined world-weariness and childlike innocence in equal measure. A very young Roddy McDowall is on hand to play the cabin boy who helps Thorndyke stow away. (McDowall has the special gratitude of many silent film fans. In 1991, he paid for Florence Lawrence’s unmarked grave to receive a proper headstone.)
Of course, acting honors must go to George Sanders. He is every inch the villain, smart and cruel. The casual, business-like manner in which he goes about his duties only adds to his menace. In 1940’s cinema, Nazis were often portrayed as evil but not nearly as frightening as their real-world counterparts. I suppose for reasons of propaganda it would be impractical to make the enemy terrifying but the cinematic Nazis of Man Hunt are the exception. Their ruthlessness is alarmingly effective.
(By the way, between Sanders and Pidgeon, I think this film boasts of some of the finest speaking voices in classic film. We are only missing Ronald Colman and Margaret Sullavan.)
Man Hunt is also an excellent book adaptation. I greatly enjoyed the orginal source novel but I would have been baffled as to how to adapt it into a Hollywood sound film. The vast majority of the book is interior monologue from the narrator (he is never named) with flashbacks to his torture and descriptions of his survival tactics. It makes for gripping reading but would be difficult to convey on-screen for the tastes of a 1940’s audience.
Screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti solve these problems in a variety of ways. First, the story is presented in strict chronological order. Second, the character of Quive-Smith, who was introduced much later in the book, is presented immediately as the main antagonist. This gives the hero someone to react to rather than simply keeping everything in his own head. Third, the character of Jerry is added. She was not invented out of whole cloth, however. The hero of the book is mourning the loss of his love at the hands of the Nazis (she is also never named) but she died some weeks before the story begins. Jerry is an amalgamation of this nameless woman and… the hero’s cat, Asmodeus.
I am about to discuss the climax so I am issuing spoiler alert. (Scroll to the picture of Jerry perched on some crates to skip the secret stuff.)
In the film, Quive-Smith murders Jerry off-screen and then taunts Thorndyke. The death of Jerry is what sends our hero over the edge and gives him the will (and means) to kill. In the book, the will and means to kill are provided by the death of… the hero’s cat. Look, I love cats, I really do and the book makes the scene completely believable but it would be an incredibly difficult moment to sell on-screen. First, showing a dead pet is not going to go over well with most people (myself included). Second, the book also has the hero skin the cat and fashion the hide into a crude ballista. This simply would not fly in 1941. I’m not sure if it could be pulled off today.
(The novel was given a more faithful adaptation with a 1976 TV-movie; Peter O’Toole took the lead. Both the original title and the cat skinning scene were left intact.)
It could be said that Jerry’s death is an example of the Women in Refrigerators trope. I would argue that this is oversimplification as, while her murder is used to propel the plot forward, she actually suffers the exact same fate that Thorndyke endured in act one: tortured by the Nazis and then thrown to certain death. Thorndyke survived, not because he is an innately superior character but because of where the attempted murder took place. The forest was filled with trees to break his fall and mud to cushion his landing. Needless to say, Jerry had neither of these advantages in London. In any case, Jerry’s death is no mere plot device thanks to Joan Bennett’s performance. We mourn her as much as Thorndyke does.
Man Hunt also ran into trouble with the Production Code Administration. Joseph Breen objected to Jerry’s implied profession and to the fact that the film made Nazis seem like villains. You read that right. You see, the U.S. was not yet in the war and Breen & Co. did not want a redo of the Kill the Hun films of the ‘teens. (They really could be nauseating. The war was used to excuse showing sadistic amounts of violence in general and rape in particular.) Of course, in spite of these limitations, Man Hunt managed to stay on the right side of history and to convey the fact that, yes, the Nazis were dangerous.
The confrontation scenes between Thorndyke and Quive-Smith were hit particularly hard. Thorndyke’s torture was an important plot point (it was the reason why he could not simply be released) but Lang was prevented from showing either the act or the aftermath. Instead, Lang employed his mastery of light and shadow to suggest what Thorndyke was going through. In the end, the scene is all the more chilling for what is not shown. Take that, Mr. Breen!
(I think it is interesting that The Glass Key got away with one of the most brutal scenes in wartime cinema just one year later. Americans beating Americans to a pulp was apparently a more acceptable form of violence.)
Man Hunt played to all of Fritz Lang’s strengths. It was a suspenseful tale that also included a lot of technical detail (how does one hide in a ship’s water tank) and some very imaginative ways to die. The movie even contains some successful humor, usually not a Lang specialty. I tend to prefer Lang’s crime and suspense films to his epics so this is right up my alley. I recommend viewing it as a double feature with his 1928 silent Spione.
Classic Hollywood would often cast American actors in English parts. Sometimes they would simply ignore the accent issue but more often they would sidestep it entirely by claiming that the character was Canadian or spent a lot of time in Canada. In Walter Pidgeon’s case, this was quite true. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1897.
Blessed with a rich singing voice, Pidgeon made his musical debut at the age of 13. He was a university student when the Great War broke out and he immediately enlisted in the Canadian artillery but he never saw combat. A training accident in France sent him to a military hospital for 17 months. After the war, Pidgeon worked briefly in banking but soon tossed it aside in favor of the stage.
The movies were still silent but his good looks ensured that his ticket to Hollywood was printed. He made his debut in the 1926 Alice Joyce vehicle Mannequin. He was billed beneath Warner Baxter and Zasu Pitts. (The Library of Congress has a 35mm print of the film but it has not been released on home video.) More parts followed, mostly light trifles.
Tragedy struck that same year when Pidgeon’s wife, Muriel, died giving birth to their daughter. Five years later, he married his secretary, a union that lasted until his death.
The coming of sound suited Pidgeon just fine. He had a fine speaking voice to match his singing talents and its deep tones were ideally suited to the primitive sound equipment, which tended to turn a tenor’s talk into a squawk if care was not used. Baritones were reasonably safe. Pidgeons made a collection of operettas at the dawn of the talkies but his singing voice was rarely heard later in his career.
Walter Pidgeon is probably most famous for his long and fruitful on-screen partnership with Greer Garson. Starting with Blossoms in the Dust in 1941, the duo would go on to star in eight pictures together, the most famous being Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie. (Why did Greer always get the title named after her? Oh well.)
Pidgeon was never a superstar but he maintained steady popularity and polite professionalism that ensured him of work long after the brighter stars had burnt out. Highlights from his career included How Green Was My Valley, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Forbidden Planet and Funny Girl.
Walter Pidgeon passed away in 1984 at the age of 87. He is remembered as, to quote Greer Garson, a gentleman and a gentle man.
One of the icons of German silent film, Fritz Lang was born in Vienna, Austria in 1890. Lang was trained as an architect before turning to art. He served in the Austrian army during World War One, and was wounded three times while fighting in Russia and Romania.
After the war, Lang tried his hand at acting and writing. It was his talents as a screenwriter that granted him entrance to the vibrant world of Weimar-era filmmaking. Lang debuted as a director in 1919 and made Destiny, his first stab at greatness, just two years later. Lang followed up with Dr. Mabuse in 1922 and then went Wagnerian with Die Nibelungen in 1924. Lang’s dark, aggressive visual style was among the most distinct in the world and his talents grew with each subsequent film.
Metropolis is, of course, Lang’s most recognizable film. Even the most casual film buff recognizes the posters of the gold robot. It’s visual brilliance and vibrantly imaginative interpretation of the future deserves all the praise it receives but to be honest, I have a soft spot for the film that came after it: Spies. Lang twists and turns the pulp genre into something crazy, pulsating, wonderful.
Sound was no barrier to Lang and there were no “starter” films or training wheels. His first talkie was M, my favorite of all his films. The parallel story of police and criminals, a serial murderer and his pursuers was the blueprint for the noir genre and it is hypnotic insight into human psychology.
Lang’s run of masterpieces was halted in its tracks by the rise of fascism in Germany. Joseph Goebbels offered to make him the head of German film. According to Lang, he suspected a trap and told Goebbels that his grandparents were Jewish. Goebbels’ comeback was “We’ll decide who is Jewish.” Whether or not this bit of repartee was exchanged, Lang was sufficiently shaken to make an escape. There is some debate as to exactly when Lang fled Germany (just after the meeting or a few weeks later, after getting his affairs in order) but flee he did, first to Paris and then to the United States.
Lang’s career in Hollywood began with Fury, a story of lynch mobs and revenge. It was based on the real-life lynching of the criminal duo who stood accused of kidnapping and murdering a popular young man named Brooke Hart. (Silent child star Jackie Coogan had been friends with the victim and some sources report that was present at the hanging.)
Fritz Lang’s Hollywood career included a variety of genres but his most popular films of this period are his proto-noir and noir films. The German refugees in Hollywood brought the visual flair and dark world view that is associated with the genre and Lang had both qualities to spare.
Lang’s dictatorial style did not endear him to his producers and after two decades of American filmmaking, he returned to Germany to remake The Indian Tomb, a film he had hoped to direct early in his career. There is more than a little wish fulfillment in the proceedings. The hero is a handsome, two-fisted architect. Lang directed his last film in 1960 and passed away in 1976.
Fritz Lang influenced so many genres, contributed so much to world culture that it is nearly impossible to encapsulate his career. Fortunately, his body of work speaks for itself.
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