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Classic chase and anti-Nazi film made by Fritz Lang in 1941
Jan 27, 2010 (Updated Jan 28, 2010)
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:cast, look, warning to somnolent Americans of Nazi ruthlessness
Cons:coda, slows down in London
The Bottom Line: Only some of the hunter's survival(ist) skills are on screen, though some of the suspense of a long chase is.
Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male topped the Men's Journal list of best thriller novels ever. It was adapted (streamlined) for the screen by Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach, The Informer) who frequently worked with John Ford. Ford was not interested in directing this adaptation, and the great German émigré director Fritz Lang took it on with borrowed (by 20th Century Fox) stars Walter Pidgeon (between two movies that received best picture Oscars, Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” and William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver”).
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Rogue Male was published in 1939, before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland. The movie premiered 13 June 1941, nearly six months before Pearl Harbor and US entry in the Second World War.
The Great White Hunter (of big game in Africa and elsewhere) Captain Alan Thorndike (Pidgeon; the character had no name in the book, which was told in the first person) is wandering through alpine forest when he comes upon a bluff with a clear shot 553.3 yards at Adolf Hitler (also not named in the book, but very obviously the demagogue ruler of the book, obviously at his Berchtesgarden “eagle’s nest”).
This is the biggest of big game and Thorndike gets the Fuhrer in the crosshairs of his scope, not intending to shoot. A guard sees him aiming and leaps on him, and a shot is discharged.
The security chief, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), was on safari in Kenya while Thorndike was much celebrated as a sportsman hunter. Thorndike expects him, therefore, to understand hunting for sport without intending to kill. The polite but ruthless major does not believe that anyone would take such risks not intending to kill and/or wants Thorndike to confess that he was on a mission from the British government, which Thorndike continues to refuse to do through being beaten up.
Then he is shoved over the cliff, a fall that he survives. The agonizing escape from the forest and the continent is detailed in the book but highly telescoped in the movie.
Thorndike is hidden on a boat by a twelve-year-old Roddy McDowall (Vanner), and tracked around London by a very sinister John Carradine (who would also played the title role (Reinhardt Heydrich) in Douglas Sirk's “Hitler's Madman,” in addition to being a regular in the John Ford repertoire company and in Lang's first two westerns, "The Return of Frank James" (playing Bob Ford), and "Western Union"). Carradine's Gestapo agent has Thorndike’s passport (but bills himself “Mr. Jones” when visiting Thorndike’s not-very-bright brother-in-law, Lord Risborough (Frederick Worlock) at the foreign office.
The London part of the book is rather leisurely displayed in the movie, with an expanded love interest played with a strong Cockney accent by Joan Bennett, who plays a prostitute under and around a censorship ban on portraying prostitutes, and, especially, loving and heroic ones.
The best action sequences of the book were filmed, one with Carradine, one with Sanders, There is a coda (post 9/1/39) that is somewhat surprising in that the US was not yet at war. Prefiguring the absurdities of our own day (such as trying to portray Barack Obama as a “racist” and claiming that Christians are persecuted in the US for not always being able to impose their beliefs on everyone else), the head censor, Joseph Breen was alarmed by the negative portrayal of Germans, calling it a "hate film,” oblivious of the genocidal Nazi regime. Breen’s censorship office would only pass the film if it confined itself to "indicating" brutality rather than showing it.
I remember an extended portrayal of survivalist life literally underground in the book and a canine companion. The screenplay passes over all that to a final confrontation between Thorndike and Quive-Smith (who has nothing better to do as shooting war is beginning than to continue to seek to get a signed confession of an official assassination plot…)
There’s some speechifying (by both Pidgeon and Sanders, both of whom had resonant, somewhat posh speaking voices), fairly weak comic relief (Bennett; McDowall was quite earnest a young helper in the escape from the dour agent on board the ship played by Carradine).
Though not a great thriller, it is an early American anti-Nazi movie with considerable suspense and excellent performances (even Bennett, whom Lang would cast again in, opposite Edward G. Robinson, in “The Woman in the Window” and “Scarlet Street”—she would also be directed by Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Zoltan Korda, and Vincente Minnelli, but said her best work was elicited by Lang). I prefer the more romantic “You Only Live Once” (1937) and the grittier “The Big Heat” (1953) among Lang’s American movies, but am glad that “Man Hunt” has been restored and has finally become available on DVD (and TCM).
Sanders in 1941 had not yet been typecast as a cad. I have difficulty seeing him as a romantic hero in movies of the 1940s (such as “Rage in Heaven”, also from 1941) but as here, as an urbane, cynical villain, he was perfect.
Nine-time Oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman (How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) provided atmospheric music. Lang, who was always very focused on visuals (with sparing use of close-ups. menacing shadows, and lots of black), had the services of Arthur C. Miller (How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, The Razor’s Edge, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Gunfighter).
©2010, Stephen O. Murray
There was also a 1976 BBC television adaptation of Rogue Male with Peter O’Toole as the hunter who becomes the hunted man literally forced to go underground that I have not seen.
This is a contribution to my dormant (but not closed) Fritz Lang writeoff. The list of other contributions is here. In addition to "Man Hunt" Lang made three more anti-Nazi movies, Hangmen Also Die, Ministry of Fear. and Cloak and Dagge.
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