It seems that every studio with a Nazi war film is scrambling to get it released about now. The Tom Cruise film Valkyrie has caused about as much Nazi fever as I’ve seen in recent years. Unfortunately, that means we’re going to see a lot of films that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day, most for good reason. Fortunately, it also means that some truly classic titles that got hidden away for decades because there is a perceived lack of interest suddenly surface like a German U-Boat about to pounce on an unsuspecting battleship. Man Hunt is absolutely one of the latter. If you haven’t ever seen this Fritz Lang masterpiece or have only experienced it through a bad late night television print, this is one of those rare opportunities that simply must not be missed. Valkyrie might be the reason that Fox has released this movie now on DVD, but it is a far superior movie that deserved a good print back in the early days of the DVD format. Whatever the reason, there is cause to celebrate that Man Hunt is finally here.
The story was originally published as a serial novel called Rogue Male written by Geoffrey Household. Alan Thorndike (Pidgeon) is a world renowned hunter. It’s the peak of Nazi Germany, and Thorndike is on what he describes as a sporting stalk. He wants to see if he could get close enough to Adolph Hitler to bring him down with a shot. He gets into position and dry fires his rifle. A second thought has him loading the weapon, but he is caught before he can bring down his prey. Caught, he is mistreated and asked to sign a full confession that he was sent by England to assassinate Hitler. The statement isn’t true, so Thorndike refuses to sign it. He withstands all manner of torture and persuasion. Finally the Gestapo gives up and tosses him from a cliff, intending to “discover” his body the next day while on a convenient hunt. But Thorndike survives the fall and makes his way back to England, protected by a young boy (McDowall) on a Danish freighter. All is not safe for him back in England. The Gestapo has followed him home, and now the great hunter is the hunted. He befriends a naïve young girl, Jerry (Bennett) but eventually finds himself in a confrontation with his old Gestapo nemesis.
Fritz Lang is uniquely qualified to direct this essentially World War II propaganda film. While it was produced before America actually entered the war, in fact inhibited by the then in effect “Neutrality Acts”, there is little doubt the film intends to bring support to the anti-Nazi crowd in this country. Fritz Lang should know his subject. He was a genius of a German filmmaker. His silent masterpieces M and Metropolis are milestones in cinema history. He was approached to become the Minister of Film for Hitler’s Reich, but refused and fled to America, where the once renowned artist often struggled to find work, or at least the freedom to pursue is rather unique style of filmmaking. What Lang did so well in the silent era he continued to do with the new sound films he found himself making in the 1940’s. Lang was a master of atmosphere. He could build suspense, or any other emotion, for that matter, with just a camera angle or the way he blocked a scene. Lang’s mind was the camera, and he could see the film unfold inside his head before a single frame of work was developed. Long before the days of special f/x, or color timing, or even practical effects, Lang could create an atmosphere that could chill an audience, or inspire it to dream. He truly was one of the first visionaries in the industry.
There is surprisingly little actual action in Man Hunt. Instead of the usual cloak and dagger games, Lang played a psychological game with his audience. He was emotionally manipulating them with every small detail. The cast were his chess pieces that he placed on his board with incredible care. Walter Pidgeon doesn’t have to display bravado to come across as brave. Joan Bennett provided a wonderfully naïve character that symbolized the innocent world, caught up in the spread of the Nazi virus across Europe. Lang was a genius in his use of shadow to build suspense. There is no doubt that the early efforts of Alfred Hitchcock are reflected in the style of a film like Man Hunt. Can one really doubt the influence Lang must have had on the English Master of Suspense? George Sanders is also excellently cast as Thorndike’s adversary. The verbal fencing that goes on between these characters shows that Lang, while a master of the silent film, quickly grasped the art of dialog and how to pace such a verbal confrontation. How many hero/nemesis moments were inspired by these fleeting scenes can’t be accurately counted, but I dare say that most of the great suspense filmmakers had more than a casual knowledge of Fritz Lang. Roddy McDowall makes an early appearance here as a child. Finally, John Carradine has a minor role as the impostor Thorndike. His job is merely to stand with that gaunt frame that was about to become famous in the Universal horror cycle. He’s an imposing character with hardly anything to say or do. But Lang wastes nothing, not a frame of film.
The subject matter was also a touchy one. It was certainly intended as anti-Nazi propaganda, and there is some rather unforgivable trite dialog to further that cause. The Neutrality Acts were a constant restriction. Remember this was before Pearl Harbor, and America was officially, if not always in fact, a neutral party. Lang was certainly not a neutral figure and felt no such restrictions upon his own message. Of course, shortly after the film appeared, we were attacked and drawn officially into the broiling conflict. It would be a defining moment in American history as Man Hunt is a defining moment in American cinema.
Man Hunt is not presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The full frame presentation likely sacrifices little, but one must ask the question, why? The black & white image has undergone a restoration for the release. While it’s not as dramatic as some I’ve seen, this is a good solid effort. Overall contrast and black levels are excellent. There is modest print damage. I suspect, or at least I hope, that this is the best print available, so accept the imperfections as part of the experience.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track reflects well the original mono composition of the source material. Dialog is clear, and the score, while not dynamic, suffers no distortion either. It is what it is. Connoisseurs of the classic film will be more than satisfied.
There is an Audio Commentary by film historian and author Patrick McGilligan. If you want a primer on the Fritz Lang touch, this will provide ample information.
Rogue Male – The Making Of Man Hunt: (16:44) Film historians and critics talk about the film and its legacy. It goes into the problems with the Neutrality Acts.
Restoration Comparison: A couple minutes of the film with a side by side comparison. It’s not dramatic, but the effort is clear.
Watching a film like this is like getting into a time capsule and seeing the birth of a galaxy. If you can appreciate the silents of Fritz Lang, this film is the proverbial “missing link” between his stylish silent films and his expressionist talkies that followed. Rarely is there such a blending of style and substance. It doesn’t exist today anywhere. To find it one must journey to “somewhere in Germany shortly before the war…”