Directed by Fritz Lang; Written by Dudley Nichols
Man Hunt is a celebration of British fortitude and civility directed by an Austrian man and starring two Americans as its quintessential English leads. It feels like fanfiction.
A romanticized act of wish-fulfillment by outsiders, it sees a famed big game hunter mock-assassinate Adolf Hitler, get found out, flee back to England, but with Nazi henchmen hot on his tail. Will he evade them, or become a chess piece in an escalating conflict that will soon see Germany invade Poland?
Man Hunt was released two years after the real-life invasion of Poland by Nazi forces, but six months before Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. entered World War II. It therefore exists in a weird in-between space where the premise of an assassin nipping Hitler in the bud doesn’t feel as naive as it would have any time after 1945, oceans of bloodshed later.
It’s not the naïveté that lets Man Hunt down, however, and the pulpy premise is actually the allure. Because what follows is a story let down by the writing and the performances of its two leads, a sticky affair only kept together by Lang’s masterful sense for suspense, which he employs frequently (and thankfully) as we watch this man pursued. The film is at its best when nobody speaks.
Walter Pidgeon stars as Captain Alan Thorndike, British socialite and elite big game hunter who suddenly finds himself embroiled in deadly intrigue. Pidgeon has the stature and disposition to look at home in Savile Row suits, but he makes a dreadful action hero. I don’t blame anyone for looking frazzled while tailed by Nazi operatives, but Pidgeon scrambling through cobblestone streets throwing frantic looks over his shoulder has the air of a mob informant finally found out.
Opposite Pidgeon, Joan Bennett commits an act of international terrorism as Jerry Stokes, the young girl who gets swept up in Thorndike’s misadventure. Meant to be a hard-nosed London town girl, Bennett, who’s from New Jersey, puts on a cockney accent so woeful it’s endlessly more suspicious than the German operatives working undercover. Resigned to fawn over Thorndike’s character, Bennett’s performance, which is already cloyingly lovestruck, is tough to watch.
The two do have some chemistry together, but it’s misplaced in a relationship so patronizing, so belittling, it’s infuriating. Thorndike does everything but call Stokes a simpleton (even if his attitude towards her is meant to be adoring!) often referring to her in the third person while speaking to others, calling her “blubbering”, “stubborn little monkey” or “dear child”. Early on, a cabin boy helps Thorndike out of a jam, and his manner towards this child is hardly any different than to his supposed love interest. For Stokes, I’m afraid there’s more dignity in a Nazi bullet than Thorndike’s esteem.
Lang’s abilities in constructing thrilling chase sequences (a London Underground sequence is the highlight) are wasted in Man Hunt, a blowhard film strangely sincere and saccharine in its peddling of the supposed civility and morality of England’s upper crest. Like Thorndike, you too should run away.