Monday, January 25, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Man Hunt"

Boy, what a great movie "Man Hunt" could have been.

This 1941 historical thriller had a great concept: A famous British hunter takes a shot at Adolf Hitler before the outbreak of war, and then is hunted down by German thugs who want to make a political spectacle out of him. And it's directed by the great German filmmaker Fritz Lang ("Metropolis"), who was a master of mood and shadow.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from a series of bad missteps.

Start with the terrible performance by Walter Pidgeon, whose Alan Thorndike is a puckish rogue one minute, then a mournful victim the next, and finally a stalwart hero. There's no anguish to the man, so that even when the Nazis are beating him mercilessly or tracking Thorndike through the streets of London, we don't really feel his peril. Pidgeon was certainly no hack, but I think he was badly miscast in this movie.

The romance portion of the film also brings it to a dead stop every time Joan Bennett is onscreen, playing a Cockney girl who lends Thorndike a hand. She falls in love with him almost instantly, and keeps stubbornly insisting that he bring her along while he flees the Germans. He protests, but keeps giving in to the pouty, pathetic masher.

The Nazis, being no fools, eventually catch up with and kill her. I silently cheered.

There are some other nice supporting performances. George Sanders is great as a Nazi (who just happens to speak with a perfect British accent), wears a monocle (didn't all Germans?) and fashions himself to be a hunter the equal of Thorndike. And a very young Roddy McDowall has a neat turn as a cabin boy who smuggles Thorndike aboard his ship during his escape.

What "Man Hunt" does have is the visual genius of Fritz Lang. The great director seemed to command shadows to bend to his will, pooling in inky depths or slitting across an alley scene in a way that subtly throws everything into a creepy off-kilter slant.

The film's signature scene is when Thorndike flees into a subway tunnel while being chased by a never-named villain, played by John Carradine in a nearly wordless role. Dressed all in black, his famously spare frame and skull-like face looming, Carradine stalks Thorndike with a sword-cane. The way the circular maw of the tunnel envelops the villain is signature Lang, who had a talent for making inanimate objects take on a life of their own.

The opening sequence is quite gripping. Thorndike, a great hunter who has grown bored with killing animals, decides to conduct a "sporting stalk" of the most challenging game in the world: Hitler himself. He stealthily makes his way to Hitler's Bavarian chateau, carefully lines up a shot through his telescopic rifle sights, pulls the trigger and... nothing but a click. He's doing it merely to prove to himself that he can, throwing a little mock salute at the Fuhrer before starting to depart.

But then there's a great moment where he pauses, returns to his sights and loads a cartridge into his rifle. He's just starting to line up a live shot when a German soldier spots him and pounces on him.

Would Thorndike really have assassinated Hitler? If screenwriter Dudley Nichols, working from the novel by Geoffrey Household, had had a little more imagination, he would have made this the central question of the film -- Thorndike, who considers himself a gentleman, tortured by the notion that he could be just as murderous as the men now pursuing him.

"Man Hunt" is still a worthwhile film, if only to adore Fritz Lang's gorgeous black-and-white compositions, and to consider what might have been.

2.5 stars

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