British hunter Thorndike vacationing in Bavaria has Hitler in his gun sight. He is captured, beaten, left for dead, and escapes back to London where he is hounded by German agents and aided by a young woman.
If Alfred Hitchcock never nabbed the Master of Suspense moniker, the title surely would have gone to Fritz Lang, a superior craftsman who hated toiling in Hitch's shadow, yet often gave the esteemed director a run for his money. The Austrian-born Lang helmed such Weimar Republic masterpieces as 'Metropolis' and 'M,' but when Hitler rose to power and tried to welcome him into the Third Reich fold by "suggesting" he head up the German film industry, Lang fled and took asylum in Hollywood. There he ruffled the feathers of many a mogul before settling down to fashion some of the most memorable film noirs of the 1940s - pictures that were darker in tone and execution than Hitchcock's, yet much to Lang's frustration, never quite achieved the same degree of renown. 'Man Hunt,' a nifty thriller that allowed Lang to confront some of his homeland demons and advertise them to the world at large, incited the comparisons (and the rivalry), and although it shares much in common with Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent' and 'Saboteur,' both produced during the same period, it's often bolder in its approach and more pointed in its political views.
The Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in the 1930s prohibited the U.S. from both defaming belligerent nations or showing favoritism to our allies, and their jurisdiction extended to the entertainment field. As a result, film scripts tackling the hot-button topic of German militarism and aggression in the period leading up to and following the declaration of war in 1939 couldn't address the Nazi threat by name. Hitchcock played by the rules, and in 'Foreign Correspondent,' a nameless country and villains with exotic yet indistinguishable accents stand in for Nazi Germany. The thinly veiled ruse fooled no one, so the following year, 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck allowed Lang to thumb his nose at the regulations and produce one of America's first anti-Nazi propoganda movies. That movie was 'Man Hunt,' and the searing - if, at times, meandering - screenplay by Dudley Nichols ('Bringing Up Baby,' 'Stagecoach') paints a warts-and-all portrait of the Third Reich, focusing on the ruthless attitudes, barbarism, bigotry, and deviousness that defined Hitler's regime - all in an effort to educate the American public about the seriousness of the European situation and its potential impact on our peaceful (some might say slumbering) and blissfully ignorant nation. (Around this time, several other films violated the neutrality pacts, sparking a congressional investigation, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent U.S. entry into World War II ended the hearings.)
Based on the popular novel 'Rogue Male' by British author Geoffrey Household, 'Man Hunt' begins with a striking put-your-cards-on-the-table sequence that instantly sets the film's tone and establishes its simple premise and political slant. A few months before war is declared, a lone hunter hiking in the Bavarian woods comes upon Hitler's country hideaway, and from a safe distance up in the hills, waits for the German führer to appear on the balcony. When he does, the hunter trains his scope upon him and squeezes the trigger, but the gun isn't loaded, so no ammunition is fired. The hunter seems satisfied, then thinks twice, and inserts a bullet into the chamber. He aims at Hitler once more, but before he can shoot, he's apprehended by a German guard and taken to the office of Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders). It's there that we discover the hunter is a well-to-do Brit, Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a noted big game enthusiast whom Quive-Smith believes the British government dispatched to Bavaria to dispatch Europe's most notorious target. Thorndike ardently denies the charge, claiming he was just performing a "sporting stalk," in which the thrill lies in seeing whether it's possible to ambush a particular prey without going for the kill.
Quive-Smith doesn't buy Thorndike's story, and tries to pressure the captain into signing a confession and implicating the British government in an assassination plot, which would tarnish England's reputation and incite hostilities between the two countries. The indignant and righteous Thorndike refuses, so Quive-Smith decides to do what any dastardly, self-respecting Nazi would do...execute the interloper by staging an accident. Yet the plan goes awry and Thorndike goes on the run. Quive-Smith and his henchmen then ferociously pursue him across the continent, and as Thorndike tries to elude them, he comes in contact with a juvenile seaman (a pre-Lassie and 'How Green Was My Valley' Roddy McDowell in his American film debut) and the attractive Jerry (Joan Bennett), a young woman of questionable repute (in the book, she's a prostitute, but in the sanitized film, she's merely a down-on-her-luck, working class dame), both of whom try to help him evade the clutches of the Third Reich.
Like many Hitchcock pictures, the film focuses on a wrongly accused man chased by a syndicate, and puts Thorndike in some claustrophobic situations - a ship's closet and below deck hatch, a dark subway tunnel, and a dank cave - from which he tries to emerge unscathed. The subway scene is the most Hitchcockian, and Lang outdoes his rival by mounting a tense cat-and-mouse pursuit that climaxes with a shocking bit of graphic (for the time) violence. Though Lang doesn't milk the suspense with as much finesse as Hitchcock, he crafts imagery that's every bit as striking. Impeccable lighting and shot composition, interesting angles, and, most notable of all, stark shadows distinguish Lang's work, making him a film noir natural (some historians even credit him with creating the genre) and his motion pictures visual masterworks. Sequences featuring water-soaked streets glistening in the moonlight, fog-drenched exteriors, and interiors with looming, foreboding shadows add to the atmosphere and heighten the yarn's effectiveness. Hitchcock may be smoother and more elegant, but Lang's grit, which manifests itself in both presentation and subject matter, lends an air of realism to his work that's often absent in Hitchcock's movies.
'Man Hunt' is still very much a film of its time, however, with its impassioned anti-Nazi speechifying, watered down sexuality, and plot contrivances. Though the romance between Thorndike and Jerry is touching, it lacks passion and occasionally stalls the story. The 44-year-old Pidgeon, who later that year would command the screen in 'How Green Was My Valley' and make the first of eight films with actress Greer Garson, which would include the Oscar-winning 'Mrs. Miniver,' makes a surprisingly authentic action hero, handling the role's physical demands with aplomb and bringing a relatable everyman quality to Thorndike that quickly endears him to us. He also creates a comfortable chemistry with Bennett, who would become Lang's favorite leading lady, starring in three of the director's subsequent films, including the widely acclaimed noir classics 'The Woman in the Window' and 'Scarlet Street,' both co-starring Edward G. Robinson. Lang and master cinematographer Arthur C. Miller lovingly photograph the raven-haired Bennett, and her stunning close-ups almost overshadow her less-than-stellar Cockney accent that varies in intensity and consistency throughout the film.
While it still resides in the massive shadow of Hitchcock, 'Man Hunt' deserves to be revisited. Along with Lang's equally thrilling 'Ministry of Fear,' which resembles 'Man Hunt' both stylistically and thematically, this tight, engrossing chase film with propoganda overtones expresses its liberal point of view with brazen disregard for authority - which intensifies its impact. It may not stick to the ribs like some of Lang's other works, but it quickens the pulse, stokes the brain, and inspires admiration for one of the most accomplished directors of Hollywood's Golden Age.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Man Hunt' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited edition of 3,000 units, and is packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay by historian Julie Kirgo and several black-and-white photos is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The films of Fritz Lang are built upon the impact of varying degrees of light and shadow, so an impeccable transfer is required to maximize the director's desired effects. Happily, Twilight Time delivers with an exceptional 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering that features fantastic clarity and gorgeous contrast, both of which combine to create breathtaking images that take full advantage of a wide gray scale that handles such tricky elements as wafting fog with ease. Not a nick, scratch, or errant mark dots the pristine source material, which sports a natural grain structure that supplies this gritty chase tale with necessary texture. Many scenes transpire at night or in dark, dank locales, but deliciously lush and sumptuous black levels help create a strikingly bold image with strong shadow delineation, no noise, and very few instances of crush. Bright whites, seen most notably in Sanders' military uniform, remain solid and stable, as do intricate patterns, which nicely resist shimmering. Background elements are easy to discern, and close-ups, especially those that focus on objects, such as Thorndike's muddy shoes and their intricate footprints, are dazzlingly precise. Tight shots of Bennett showcase her palpable glamour, while those of Pidgeon highlight his rugged, often disheveled good looks.
Though obvious restoration has been done on this film, rarely do any shots look artificial, and no visible edge sharpening or noise reduction could be detected. Black-and-white films of this vintage that exude the essence of noir can be exquisite specimens if handled with care, and this superior effort sits on a rarefied plane among classic movie releases.
Though the audio quality can't quite rival the film's stunning video, it comes darn close. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track impresses across the board, supplying sound that's free of any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, and possesses a surprising amount of nuance and finesse. From listening to the crystal clear tones, robust music score, and crisp, distinct effects, you'd never dream the original track is 73 years old. Fidelity, of course, comes up short, due to the constrained soundscape, but a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease and continually keeps distortion at bay. Atmospherics shine, with rustling foliage, gentle breezes, chirping birds, and buzzing insects all subtly enhancing the film even though they emanate exclusively from the center channel, while sonic accents, like a ship's foghorn, barking dogs, screams, the rattling of a subway train, and gunfire, continually punch up the track. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and Alfred Newman's undistinguished score lacks the shrill and tinny qualities that often hamper orchestrations of the period. There's a lot going on in this mono track, but the perfectly balanced audio ensures a seamless, immersive aural experience. If only every film from Hollywood's Golden Age could sound this good.
A few supplements spruce up this limited edition disc.
Audio Commentary - Author Patrick McGilligan, who wrote a book about Fritz Lang, sits down for an informative, animated, and, at times, irreverent commentary that enhances appreciation for the film. In addition to providing mini bios of many members of the cast and crew, McGilligan talks about the contemporary history that influenced 'Man Hunt,' Lang's connection to the Third Reich and colorful account of how he fled the regime, plot differences between the novel and the movie, censorship and political issues, and Lang's rivalry with Hitchcock. He also points out marvelous visual details as the film rolls along and doesn't hesitate to criticize plodding scenes and narrative holes. Though it irked me that McGilligan credited some of his information to IMDb (I prefer my commentaries to impart facts and anecdotes I can't easily look up myself), his enthusiastic discussion held my interest, and it was refreshing to hear a voice other than Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on a Twilight Time release.
Featurette: "Rogue Male: The Making of 'Man Hunt'" (SD, 17 minutes) - This breezy piece features perspective from a number of Lang experts and film historians - McGilligan included - all of whom cite specific "Lang-ian" elements and themes in the movie. We learn about Lang's troubles adapting to the American studio system and his fights with executives, his obsessive-compulsive perfectionism, and brutal treatment of many actors. His long professional association with actress Joan Bennett, one of the few performers who responded to his brusque and controlling style, is also addressed, along with the film's amazingly brief production schedule (three months from inception to release), designed to preserve the tale's timeliness and heighten its impact. Rare behind-the-scenes photos augment this absorbing featurette, which classic film aficionados will certainly enjoy.
Isolated Score Track - Those who wish to savor Alfred Newman's foreboding theme music and endless instrumental variations on 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' can do so by accessing this isolated score track.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - This brief preview never identifies the title of the picture or any of the actors, but it emphasizes the story's suspenseful nature.
Taut, suspenseful, and bursting with anti-Fascist propoganda, 'Man Hunt' stands as one of director Fritz Lang's most inimitable films. The story of a not-so-common man who's accused of trying to assassinate Hitler and finds himself at the epicenter of an international pursuit is exciting enough, but it still takes a back seat to Lang's arresting visuals and flawless technique. Walter Pidgeon makes a tough and rugged hero who refuses to acquiese to Nazi demands, while Joan Bennett's portrait of a hard-knocks dame who falls for Pidgeon's dashing charm is sweet and ultimately heartbreaking. Some memorable set pieces ratchet up tension and give Hitchcock a run for his money, and thanks to Twilight Time's glorious video transfer, we're able to absorb and admire every critical detail. Solid audio and a couple of interesting supplements also enhance the experience, and help 'Man Hunt' earn a hearty recommendation.