Before Twilight Time’s recent release I’d never heard of Man Hunt, odd considering it’s directed by acclaimed director Fritz Lang, and starring 1940s heavy-hitters Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, and Joan Bennett. This could be partly based on the WWII-setting and its encouraging propagandist message, or the fact that its stars and director hadn’t hit the big time yet (M was still Lang’s best known feature, while Pidgeon would be catapulted to fame with Mrs. Miniver the year after this). Strip away those two concepts and it could be that Man Hunt isn’t well known because it’s all over the place, a comment both good and bad.
Alan Thorndike (Pidgeon) is a big game hunter caught by the Nazis after aiming a gun at the Fuhrer. He claims he was only testing whether he could do it; he wasn’t actually going to kill Hitler. Gestapo commander, Major Quive-Smith (Sanders) doesn’t believe Thorndike and plots his murder. When Thorndike escapes, Quive-Smith sends a mystery man (John Carradine) to track him down. Meanwhile, Thorndike seeks the help of a kind British girl (Joan Bennett) to bring him home to his family.
Man Hunt is carved into three distinct segments, neither one really feeling like it belongs so much as the script tells us they all fit together. When Thorndike starts gunning – literally – for Hitler it’s a tense moment performed in complete silent, not even forest noises. Everything about Alan setting up the gun and lining up the sights is precise. The air of tension continues once Alan is presented to Quive-Smith. Lang keeps Alan, and the audience, in the dark, not giving us English subtitles for what the Germans are saying. We’re never privy to the Gestapo’s plans, just like the rest of the country were at the time.
Man Hunt was a risk for 20th Century Fox in 1941 since the studios banded together in the spirit of neutrality, fearing that overseas box office would suffer if they presented pictures attacking Germany. There’s nothing neutral about Lang’s story; it’s a full-blown attack against the spread of Fascism and the Nazis. Even the film’s title, brings up the domino theory; today they’re hunting Alan Thorndike, tomorrow it’ll be a different man, and later on, the world. By the end, Thorndike’s neutrality is shattered, not by the horrors Hitler is doomed to inflict on humanity, but the death of one Cockney girl he met for a few hours.
Yes, this isn’t the iconic Fritz Lang of M or his later works. Much of Man Hunt is so dated as to induce hilarity. Walter Pidgeon flexes his muscles, gearing up for his role in Mrs. Miniver, and there’s some fantastic verbal sparring between him and George Sanders. Pidgeon’s speech condemning Nazism in the final reel is poignant and a tough, all too real, condemnation of what viewers of the 1940s probably felt about the whole thing.
The first act is The Most Dangerous Game: Nazi Edition and both Pidgeon and Sanders are the best representations of good and evil for the era. Every line is tainted with suspicion on both sides. Sanders steals much of the film, especially in his ability to make death sound eloquent as all get out, and he’s complimented by the ultimate shadowy thug in John Carradine’s Mr. Jones.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much enjoyment from the female angle of this film, and by that I’m talking about Joan Bennett. Bennett looks gorgeous, but there’s absolutely no way of buying her declarations of poverty when she’s all dolled up; the only sign of this “poverty” is her drab suit. If you can ignore that, you won’t be able to get over her “‘Ello guvnor” accent that would make Eliza Doolittle blush. Bennett’s screeching and yelling her lines fails to help matters. There are some odd, risque barbs thrown about, such as Bennett’s Jerry being upset Alan sleeps on the coach, but the rest of their relationship is just so patronizing. I take note of the occasional treatment of women as children, but every moment between Alan and Jerry involves a pat on her head and a chuck under the chin. Sadly, you don’t feel too bad when the Nazis make a date with Jerry and a window.
The film’s conclusion hopes to recruit the audience, giving Alan a reason to join the Army and finally take care of Hitler, which he failed to do before. Unfortunately, through no fault of the movie’s considering they had no idea how events would play out, history proves Alan never gets the true revenge of killing Hitler he envisioned.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray looks and sounds beautiful. In terms of bonus content it’s got a few additional features compared to past releases: There’s a sixteen-minute commentary on the making of the film with some commentary on the film’s origins and contributions to the war movement. There’s also audio commentary with Fritz Lang biography Patrick McGilligan; this is the film’s highlight as McGilligan discusses Lang’s various films involving Nazis and additional information on the actors. Additional features include the film’s theatrical trailer, and the standard Twilight Time feature of isolated soundtrack.
Man Hunt presents a unique twist on the Nazi genre, specifically the “man hunting” angle between Pidgeon and Sanders. Joan Bennett threatens to ruin everything, but there’s more than her which makes this worth watching.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.