Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a British hunter who has taken a trip to Europe to conquer his fiercest prey yet: man. Thorndike has Hitler (Carl Ekberg*) pegged through the sight of his rifle.
(*Fun fact: Ekberg played Hitler in six different films, including Citizen Kane, and also appeared frequently as a German soldier.)
But before he can take the shot, Thorndike is captured. He is tortured when he won’t accept the deal that Hitler’s men give him. They want him to sign a document stating that his country ordered him to assassinate Hitler, which would spark a worldwide conflict. He is eventually able to escape via ship back to London after making a run for it and stowing away.
Thorndike’s troubles aren’t over just yet when he reaches home. He’s been followed by German agents (including John Carradine) working for the man who interrogated him during the capture, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders).
With the help of a young woman named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), Thorndike may be able to get himself out of this mess without betraying his country.
Directed by the great Fritz Lang, Man Hunt is based on a serial from Atlantic Monthly called “Rogue Male.” It was written for the screen by Dudley Nichols.
This film has a fantastic opening after the credits roll. It’s nearly silent, and all we see is a man walking through the woods… until he reaches his destination and we see none other than Adolf Hitler through the scope of his rifle.
The story that Man Hunt tells is very gripping from this high-tension beginning, and it only gets more complex as time passes. It’s packed with assassination plots, stowaways and stolen identities. All of this adds to up to plenty of suspenseful moments which save the film from its own inconsistent pacing, which in some instances can seem slightly too slow.
The performances that carry Man Hunt are generally well-executed, with the exception of one: Joan Bennett. I usually enjoy Joan’s films/performances, so it pains me to write this, but she is the weak link of the cast. Though she provides many of the film’s light and sweet moments, keeping the story from getting to heavy, she also overacts at times and delivers a terribly executed faux-British accent.
Many of her scenes, since the majority do provide a touch of comedy in her banter with Walter Pidgeon, feel out of place in a film that deals with such serious subject matter as a world on the brink of war.
Despite these less-than-stellar attributes, there’s still a whole lot to love about this film. I appreciated the use of symbolic props (like a chess board) and the masterful cinematography, which is full of shadow.
The sound is also exceptional, with a few very striking scenes making use of powerful silence – a complete lack of score and dialogue. The opening “hunt” and the train tunnel scene are examples of some of the film’s finest artistry in terms of atmosphere-building.
In terms of the script, it takes the frequent wartime drama tactic of characters representing their home countries to a whole new level. Thorndike and Quive-Smith’s conflict with each other is at the heart of the film. Both men suffer for their countries, even coming close to or meeting a fate of death.
In a way, these characters seem written to justify Britain’s involvement in the war. Early in the film we see these two men engaging in relatively calm discussion, which leads them nowhere and does not solve their problem. The situation escalates to the titular “man hunt” and violence because a verbal compromise could not be reached.
The film is set just as war is breaking out in Europe and before the Allies have become fully involved. By the end, the full-on World War has begun. *SPOILER TIME* Thorndike has survived and has returned to Germany. Whereas previously he had been traveling of his own accord, he is now in Europe officially serving duty to his country. Blatant, highly patriotic narration ends the film with the hope that Thorndike will succeed in this mission where he failed the first time: actually pulling the trigger and reaching his target (Hitler) rather than being tackled and captured before he gets the shot. *END SPOILERS*
Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, and this film was released in 1941, making it a fascinating watch for its historical significance alone. Simply as a narrative film, it also has many strengths which easily trump its imperfections. I would recommend this one to any viewer interested in the second World War and how it was portrayed in popular media. The score: 4/5