By Isaac Butler
Few films demonstrate the gulf between Fritz Lang in full directorial flight and just punching the clock than his 1942 thriller Man Hunt. It’s a fascinating film, both visually brilliant and heavily compromised by the tropes of its genre and the Hays Code’s obsequious devotion to shifting political winds. Man Hunt is a Hollywood film about the necessity of military confrontation with Nazi Germany shot prior to US involvement in WWII, directed by a German exile. It wants to both communicate the casual brutality of the Nazis and succeed as a popcorn thriller, the kind where a guy on the run meets a woman he never would’ve noticed prior and they maybe fall in love.
In terms of story, in other words, Man Hunt is totally ludicrous. Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a British noble and world-renowned Big Game Hunter, gets the sights of his hunting rifle on Adolph Hitler, only to be captured by the Gestapo while he has his finger on the trigger. Thorndike had no intention of killing Hitler, he claims, he only did it as “a sporting stalk,” to prove to himself that he could (whether this is true or not remains ambiguous until just prior to the film’s end).
For some reason, Thorndike thinks this should get him off the hook, as he obliviously cracks wise and elegantly chain-smokes with his interrogator, Major Quive-Smith (a superb George Sanders). Instead, he gets tortured by a faceless gang of Nazis only to escape when their attempt to make his execution look like an accident goes awry. Thorndike flees to London for the film’s second act, where he struggles to stay ahead of a hit squad made up of German immigrants and meets a Cockney lass named Jerry Stokes, played by Joan Bennett. Together, they cook up a harebrained scheme in which he’ll fake his own death and take up a secret identity until the heat blows over. Judgement at Nuremburg this ain’t.
The first act—during which Thorndike is captured, interrogated and escapes—crackles with inventiveness and great shot design, particularly in its treatment of violence. For Man Hunt is at its core a film about the failure of the existing social order of Europe (in this case, British nobles) to accurately perceive and confront the Nazi threat, and it uses violence to make this point more than once, shooting it in ways that still feel alive today.
The film opens with Thorndike putting Hitler in his sights in an extended wordless sequence. The world’s greatest hunter looks at Hitler through his scope, attaches the scope to a rifle, salutes Hitler sardonically as if to say “I got you,” puts a bullet in the chamber and starts to maybe-pull the trigger before being leapt upon by a Gestapo officer. The tussle here is oddly savage for the period. It’s ugly, as ugly as a real fistfight, and (adding to the realism) looks barely choreographed, unstylized, frantic. These guys, we are led to believe, might actually be beating the shit out of each other.
Soon, Thorndike finds himself being interrogated by Sanders’s Quive-Smith. It’s no coincidence that Quive-Smith’s last name sounds like a British Lord, even though he’s German. Quive-Smith is essentially Thorndike’s double. They’re both nobles and both big game hunters—it’s revealed that Quive-Smith is even a Thorndike fanboy—and once Thorndike figures all of this out, he tries to level with Quive-Smith man to man. Sure, he’ll admit, he hates Hitler and thinks he’s a thug, but try to kill? Come on, old chap, that wouldn’t be sporting.
Thorndike has mistakenly assumed he’s Cary Grant (or Rex Harrison) in a far more lighthearted feature, the kind where the clever guy always wins. Soon, he finds out how wrong he is, and how little his nobility will protect him. His idiot diplomat brother doesn’t even know where he is, and being famous and a noble only makes him a more attractive prisoner for the Nazis. Quive-Smith promises to let him go if he will sign a false confession saying he was under orders from the British Crown. When Thorndike refuses, they beat and torture him, leading to the film’s most starting sequence.
It begins outside the interrogation room, as the German ambassador ends a phone call with Thorndike’s brother, Lord Westborough, who believes Thorndike is still in county. Previosuly in the scene, we’ve been able to take in most of the Ambassador’s office, but by the end of the conversation, Lang has placed the camera very low, much lower than for a normal mid-shot, so that it rests below the ambassador’s desk. The result is an obviation of his humanity. While he might seem like every frustrated bureaucrat I grew up around in Washington, he’s dwarfed by the symbols of his government.
He’s also afraid of his Aryan subordinate, almost insulting the Gestapo before looking furtively in his direction and changing his mind. Instead, he rifles off a memo to the Gestapo that crossfades to Quive-Smith reading the memo aloud to a Nazi Doctor with whom he playing chess in what looks like the least inviting parlor in the history of interior design:
This tees up a final interrogation scene between Quive-Smith and Thorndike, which is also the film’s most famous sequence (and rightfully so). The backstory goes like this: Hays Code Censors wouldn’t approve the movie at first because the Nazis were too evil. Since we weren’t at war yet, this could lead to all sorts of diplomatic nightmares. Lang refused to change the content of the film, and instead compromised on how it was shot. Thus, when Thorndike is carried into the scene, he’s never shown. Instead, we see his feet drag along the rug, and the furrows they leave behind, a little grace note that the Coen brothers will later borrow for The Hudsucker Proxy.
Although Hudsucker uses the gesture for humor, in both cases the rug is a marker of power. The people already in the room have left no mark of their entry. They have the power to erase their own history, or have somehow always been there, always been secure. It is as if they are so powerful the room itself was built around them. They are in control. They are control itself.
For the rest of the scene, as he is checked by a doctor and then questioned further by Quive-Smith, Thorndike remains in silhouette, the film pointing to brutality by its very omission.
The shocking realism of the earlier violence only highlights our dread at this moment. Imagine, it seems to be saying, if I’m willing to show you that, and I’m not willing to show you this, how horrible this must be. The elision of the torture also points back to us, the American viewer (and Hays Code Censor) in 1942. It is looking away from the horrors that Thorndike experiences the same way that we were currently looking away from the horrors Europe was experiencing. Horros that will leave Throndike, like many who will live through his era, bearing scars for the rest of his life.
Soon, the execution of Thorndike is botched and he flees to London for a baggy middle act in which the film totally loses its way. Once the film has gone from the bizarre to the tropes of the ordinary thriller, you can feel the Number of Fucks Given Counter start decreasing towards zero. Bennett and Pidgeon’s chemistry is nonexistent, and the comedy-of-manners, “Cor Blimey! I’m ‘Angin’ Out Wiv a Lord!” schtick must’ve felt tired even then.
Although Lang's staging and shot composition remains impeccable, the pace slows to a crawl, the editor appears to take a lunch break and the energy seeps out of the movie. This hour of the film, where sometimes it seems as if Lang et al are actually angry they have to take a break from all the Hitler denouncing and Nazi rough housing to focus on a never-consummated romance, also feels like another kind of looking away, a way of moving the camera, and the audience, away from the shadow of the man strapped to the chair, looking down, but still defiant.
Thankfully, Lang picks it up again once the film’s endgame begins and Man Hunt once again unleashes its inner weirdo. Bennett is murdered and Poland is invaded, both events happening unceremoniously off screen and recounted in dialogue. Thorndike holes up in a cave, becoming literal and figurative prey for Quive-Smith, his evil twin gentleman hunter, who is still obsessed with getting Thorndike to sign a false confession. This lends their final scene together an off-kilter comedy constructed out of prop business and bizarre staging.
Their final confrontation is suffused with violence, first emotional, as Quive-Smith breaks Thorndike’s will through a series of traumatic revelations, and then physical. Thorndike and Quive-Smith shoot each other (with, respectively, a bow and arrow and a revolver). Quive-Smith dies, Thorndike survives and dreams of his cockney almost-girlfriend in his hospital bed before enlisting in the British Army, going rogue, and parachuting into Germany with a rifle taped to his chest as a never-before-heard voice over promises us that this time, he “knows his purpose.”
I have to imagine that even in its time, a movie promising the audience not to worry too much about this whole WWII business because, guess what, a fictional character is going to sort this whole thing out with a hunting rifle was considered ballsy. What I was struck with most of all in this moment was how the film appeared to be in dialogue with Hitchock’s Foreign Correspondent.
Both films are about a seemingly apolitical protagonist, protected by a kind of privilege (one is an American journalist, the other a British Lord), who stumble upon the evil of the Nazis before America seemed to have caught on. Both men are humbled both symbolically and literally, and both meet (and fall in love with) women who help them escape from that bad guys. Both also end with a direct address to the audience. In Foreign Correspondent, American newsman John Jones calls out to America to bring the Light of Democracy to a Europe under siege as his radio station is bombed by the Germans. It’s a noble moment, a man risking his life to bring the reality home.
Foreign Correspondent brings a lightness to the proceedings. The tone remains largely comic throughout, and we never lose faith that things will work out for our hero. One of the main Nazis is sad, duty-bound and possesseed of a kind of nobility, redeeming himself through sacrifice before the film is over. The guy gets the girl, and even the retreat to the bomb shelters seems a little bit giddy and filled with the energy of new love.
Man Hunt eschews all this. Its attempts at comedy fall largely flat. The girl dies. The hero, who began shielded by fame and fortune, loses his identity and his riches. Rather than getting a noble speech, the film must speak for him, as he breaks the law and throws his life away in an attempt to mete out his own form of justice. He may have started the film as the kind of dapper, pressed-khaki British hero we’d expect, but by the end he’s a broken shell, the protagonist of a far more modern film, the kind of movie where a man loses everything and makes himself an instrument of some kind of greater, death-seeking power. In the film’s final moments, the camera zooms in on a parachuting Thorndike, his face looking down.
The camera loses interest in his face and hovers instead on the gun taped to his chest, turning almost as if to place its butt against our shoulder, its stock against our hand, its sight against our eye. And then Thorndike is gone, only the top of his vanishing parachute remaining as God Save the Queen—or is it My Country ‘Tis of Thee?—plays over the credits, our lone gunman going on a suicide mission to save the world and kill the Führer, or perhaps to wait off screen for a more paranoid and cynical time, when the lone gunman archetype can resurface, less heroically, as The Manchurian Candidate and put a very different group of people in his rifle's sights.