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DVD Review: Man Hunt (1941)

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All of you Fritz Lang fans out there may finally breathe a sigh of relief. Fox Home Entertainment has finally released the iconic director’s World War II thriller Man Hunt to home video.

Based on the classic novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, Man Hunt opens with British sportsman Thorndike (Canadian-born actor Walter Pidgeon, sans any sort of English accent whatsoever) sneaking about the woods of Berchtesgaden in 1939. Ascending to the top of a ledge, Thorndike takes out his precision rifle and soon has Adolf Hitler (bit player Carl Ekberg — who played Hitler more times in film than probably anybody else) in his sights. He fires, but there is no shot since he has deliberately not loaded his gun. Thinking it over for a moment, Thorndike decides to load a shell into his weapon — but is then captured by a Nazi officer on patrol.

Held captive by Hitler’s security chief, a monocle-clad man named Major Quive-Smith (English actor George Sanders), Thorndike is asked to sign a confession stating he was assigned by his country to assassinate the “strutting little Caesar.” With such a confession, Hitler and his army of madmen will have reason to invade Great Britain. He refuses, and is tortured and finally thrown from a cliff.

Miraculously surviving, Thorndike makes his way back to England. There he finds the Gestapo on every corner looking for him, and a caring young woman (American actress Joan Bennett, who does try her hand at an accent — and poorly at that) who may be the only person he can rely on in a world full of spies. John Carradine is at his menacing best in a supporting role as one of the spies, and a young Roddy McDowall hams it up in his first American role.

Man Hunt may not have the best script in the world (the whole production was rushed and made in only three months), but nevertheless it is a film that is practically required viewing for any WWII enthusiast. When Man Hunt was being filmed, America was still neutral to that Hitler guy’s rampaging in Europe. The Hays Office wasn’t quite sure if this was a British propaganda film or not (and then, a few months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and, well… the rest is history isn’t it?).

Another thing that keeps the film afloat is Fritz Lang’s unmistakable touch. The lighting is undeniably expressionistic. The foggy, dimly-lighted streets of London (although Hollywood-created) give the film a unique atmosphere that one cannot dispute. And the restoration job that Fox has done with this vintage title is remarkable.

The movie is presented in its original standard 1.33:1 ratio, with solid blacks throughout. I did notice that the right hand of the screen tended to have an odd “blue-ish” tint to it during some scenes (particularly during the middle of the film), but it isn’t something that should discourage viewers (or perhaps it was just me). Audio-wise, we are treated to the original English mono soundtrack as well as an English mono stereo one. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

It’s rare to see special features with an older “catalogue” title. But, for once, that oversight has been corrected, and Fox has given us a few goodies to gloat over. First off is an audio commentary with Lang author Patrick McGilligan. Although he sounds like he’s scared shitless, McGilligan gives us a lot of information about the film, the stars, director Lang, and notes many of the film's strong points as well as the low ones.

Additional bonus materials consist of the featurette “Rogue Male: The Making Of Man Hunt” (16:43); a trailer (1:49) that seems to be missing all of its titles and captions; a restoration comparison; and several galleries.

While it may seem dated to the average modern moviegoer, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt takes us back to a pre-World War II era and gives us a fascinating (and historically important) political message. Okay, so Walter Pidgeon and Joan Bennett don’t exactly make the most convincing English people, but George Sanders’ German more than makes us for that. It’s a fun movie, too.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
  • Dennis

    I give you full credit for your article on Man Hunt.

    All right, Walter Pidgeon’s English accent is not as good as George Sanders’s (nor would he wish it to be in the film [joke, sorry but couldn’t resist that one…!]) but he’s OK and in his modest, unassuming and decent way he fulfills the rle very well. Who could in fact have done better? William Holden maybe? Even Eric Portman, why not? Or Ralph Richardson. Laurence Olivier was too strong not self-doubting enough. In fact I find him (Walter Pidgeon) much better than he was in Mrs Miniver in which film he seems to lack something somewhere like guts maybe?.

    As for dear Joan Bennett, she is one of my favourite stars and especially in Man Hunt, it gets right up my nose to read negative criticism of her Cockney accent in the film as being “not up to standard”! Whatever differences there are are of no consequence whatsoever, and I certainly would rather listen to her tones than some of those of more authentic “scrubbers” which reach the depths of callous vulgarity. Maggie Smith could make the best of cockney accents, so very good you’d be turned off them for life. (See her in Oh What a Lovely War). They (the Cockney scrubbers!!) have done well by their absence from the film.

    Similarly with Roddy McDowall’s youthful rendering of Varner the cabin boy. To many of the present generation his voice bears/bore no resemblence to “real” talk of a mere cabin boy [well thank goodness for that!]: like someone out of Boys’ Own Paper (is their criticism) an unrealisticly idealistic magazine of the day held to appeal only to middle class attitudes over and above the rest of society’s mortals for which decode for “the working class”.

    George Sanders as the arch enemy is perfect, as are the other “horrors” like John Carradine. As for the sub strata of the new Aryan ideal Fritz Lang scores remarkably well for the choice of some of the weasel-like individuals like the jeweller who sells the arrow-broach to Bennett, the post-office mistress who delays giving the poste-restante packet to Pidgeon escaping from the fascist network, so she can inform on him to her other weasel-like cronies in crime and that prime insolent weasel-type of the working-class with the cloth-cap at port of London docks who provocatively throws his fag-end in the path of Pidgeon as our hero approaches from his ship. The gesture is not really lost by our hero although he tries to ignore it.

    The underground station and platform scenes are good and again I would willingly reject any critic who dares to say they bear little resemblance to London underground trains. What is of prime importance is atmosphere and Lang has achieved this. Speaking as one who has lived and worked in London I am familiar with and know of London’s tube system as much as anyone, and to criticise the film on nitpicking points such as mentioned is like someone barking up a gum-tree for they are streets away from the essential which is atmosphere!

    The film is a film-noir except there are no gangsters as such only gangsters with an amoralistic and sadistic ambition to be politicians, greedy for power over their fellow human beings. The year is 1938 or 1939, and Europe is in the throes of burgeoning terror – Hitler has torn up his signature to the Munich agreement – a sordid shameful agreement in itself, he summons the heads of foreign states or their representatives to bully them into submission with threats of destruction by bombs over their people. Manchuria, China, Ethiopia, Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States, Memel, Danzig and Poland; political assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, Dollfuss of Austria albeit a fascist himself but never mind the picture of events is terrifyingly similar.

    Even those who profess to be anti fascist are hardly blameless when the Soviet Union attacks Finland and conducts brutal purges of its own military and civilian population and withdraws its own Minister for Foreign Affairs – Litvinov – in favour of Molotov because the former is Jewish and therefore unacceptable to the Third Reich.

    Wherefore and wither then the “little man” beloved by one great political cartoonist [Low] in Great Britain? Whither the ordinary man indeed when our hero Pidgeon manages to escape death in captivity in Germany to return to his own country England only to find the place infested with the bugs of humanity – local small-time fascists drawn along like the sheep they are by nazi agents dressed up like dogs’ dinners in Moss Bros type suits as hilariously out of place as Ambassador Ribbentrop when he gave the nazi salute to King George VI in his inauguration ceremony.

    “Hilarious” if funny ie if it all were not so sad and tragic. And that’s the theme Fritz Lang wished to warn us of. Those were very black times beteen 1937 and 1941 when even Roosevelt had promised the American Nation there would be no involvement in foreign wars. Aye… As the Duke of Wellington remarked after the battle of Waterloo that “It was a very close run thing”.

    Thanks to the many Good won over Evil, but only just, and not least because of the indescriptable evil errors of judgement of the Axis powers themselves viz it was Japan who attacked the USA, that the Third Reich and fascist Italy declared war on the USA not the reverse. Only for these reasons did America find itself at war (one can say the same thing for the Soviet Union too! so little credit there, what?!)

    When you say Man Hunt was a rush job made in three months, I think perhaps it was this “rush”, this urgency, that served it so well. “The Great Dictator” was an excellent film, not rushed, but it came out too late, much too late, but it was still an excellent film. But it isn’t the excellence of the film but the message to convey at the right time that is important.

    In a way Man Hunt reflects the attitudes of the civilised West – Britain, France and USA – at the time: they were all so undecided, hesitant not wishing to make matters worse, seeking compromise to avoid another bloodbath of the last Great War – the “war to end all wars” they said. Their failing was that they had little imagination of how to deal with the amoralistic monster and potential butcher that was Hitler, who appeared at worst no worse than a Germanic type of Mussolini, the man who made trains run on time! Hitler was solving the unemployment problem! You bet!

    We may wonder in hindsight how blind politicians were then. Politicians like Baldwin who won an election by appealing to the people’s fear of another general war – like the last one only worse this time from the air against which there was no defence and like saying there was no need for defence spending because nothing could be done to ward off a defeat in the air. No one wanted war therefore it was insane to want war because no one could win therefore to spend on defence was a waste of money and time!

    And Chamberlain who reasoned he could do business with a man like Hitler and was blind to the fact that Hitler was laughing at him. The Peace Pledge Union who rationalised that no sane human being would want to go to war as they did two decades before, and therefore if all good men and women true in all nations signed the pledge to the League of Nations there would be no war. The logic of the reasonable man, the ordinary man, the little man, of Chamberlain with his gamp, with his brolly. He received thousands of letters, and gifts, immediately after signing the Munich agreement, as proof and gratitude that war had been averted.

    But finally the world was at war, the phoney war to those who were not hunting down the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. But phoney war all right except for Finland, until Norway, and then the Low Countries were suddenly invaded and we all woke up, our minds set, that enough was enough and the beast had to be put down.

    Thus our mild mannered decent, civilised, considerate hero Thorndyke, whose brother is an ambassador – to the Third Reich no less – all of which to no avail, no exemptions for the upper classes, we are all in it and up to our necks was the message. Fritz Lang’s ending of the film is brief, no need for anything further to be mooted or said.

    Like Shakespeare in his Henry V with his “Our minds are set…” and “Perish the man whose mind is not” and “I would not die in that man’s company…” etc etc. Thorndyke’s mind is set like a man with a purpose to venge the murder of an innocent soul like Bennett’s personage, and to put down the beast, no matter what the outcome. No more playing around, no more “stalking” the sportsman’s term for tracking the prey. Thorndyke – Walter Pidgeon – now knows the chips are down and that we civilised humanity, the little man, will remain the prey of the nazi beast unless we put down the beast first.

    This is a very great film and I for one yearn for its release in dvd for Region 2. I saw this film when only a boy way back in 1941 in England in the London area. Those were very dark days for so many. I remember them vividly. And all those people of that era were so very, very brave and courageous.

    Fritz Lang knew all about the potential of the nazi beast… and did us all a great service with his films. He deserved greater fame. Thank you for reading my comments and with very good wishes for the successful contiuation of your website, I remain yours sincerely
    Dennis Hall
    Switzerland.

  • Dengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Fritz Lang Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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