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Man Hunt (1941)

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. The Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.

In December 1940, Timely Comics released the first issue (cover-dated March 1941) of Captain America with an image designed to draw eyes to it across a crowded newsstand: Adolf Hitler taking a punch to the jaw. The stars-and-stripes-clad title character delivered the blow, showing no mercy and wearing a look of grim determination, as if his life had been building to the moment when he could slug Der Führer. It was an image dreamed up by comic-book creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom would dearly have liked for it to come true. As impossible as it now seems, not everyone shared that opinion. America’s entry into World War II remained a year away, and while it now seems right and inevitable that we would enter the fray, the U.S. spent time hovering on the brink. With Captain America, Simon and Kirby crafted a hero they hoped would someday come to life, in one form or another.

They weren’t alone. In June 1941, Twentieth Century Fox released Man Hunt, a Fritz Lang-directed thriller starring Canadian-born actor Walter Pidgeon. It’s an extraordinary film in many respects, and it’s even more extraordinary that it made it to theaters. Though the Production Code Authority’s restrictions had begun to relax by 1941, it still attempted to keep films within the strictures of the Neutrality Act, which forbade encouraging America’s involvement in foreign wars and looked askance at films that openly criticized foreign governments. While the fig leaf of satire and Charlie Chaplin’s independence from the studio system let The Great Dictator sneak through, Hollywood was not in the business of making anti-Nazi movies before Pearl Harbor.

Though it never directly suggests it’s the business of good Americans to fight Nazis, Man Hunt is absolutely an anti-Nazi movie, directed by someone who, the story goes, was once recruited to work for the other side. Though the details of the tale have been questioned, Fritz Lang liked to tell of a 1934 meeting with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in which Goebbels offered him the job of the nation’s top filmmaker, prompting Lang to leave Germany. Lang was a Catholic by faith but Jewish by birth, yet it hardly seems impossible that the Nazis might look the other way in the interest of harnessing the skills of the man responsible for Metropolis and M for their own ends. (After all, they’d already won a convert in Thea von Harbou, Lang’s ex-wife and screenwriter.)

After shooting one film, Liliom, in France, Lang made his way to Hollywood, where he took assignments making movies about good men persecuted by the institutions around them. With its atmosphere of urban peril and shadowy streets, Lang’s 1931 film M laid the groundwork for film noir, and he continued the job with efforts like You Only Live Once, in which ex-con Henry Fonda discovers that as much as he wants to go straight, the world has other plans for him. Driven by bad luck, bad choices, and bad companions back into a life of crime, he’s a classic noir hero. But he’s also an effective stand-in for anyone overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control, circumstances created by the evil of a few and the indifference of many.

A few years later, Fonda reteamed with Lang to play Frank James in The Return Of Frank James, which portrayed the outlaw, with little regard for history, as a good man standing up to a corrupt system. Years later, after Lang found success working in the noir genre he helped create, thanks to films like Scarlet Street, Glenn Ford played a righteous avenger standing up to entrenched evil in The Big Heat. But as often as Lang portrayed battles between good and evil, he was always more comfortable painting in gray than black and white, and working with heroes struggling with the nature of their own souls. It’s not hard, then, to see what attracted Lang to Man Hunt beyond the promise of a studio paycheck and a chance to create a widely seen piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, though both held considerable appeal. In Pidgeon’s Alan Thorndike, he found one of his most conflicted heroes, an outwardly happy-go-lucky aristocrat whose actions often don’t match his words, or even his own thoughts.

Which brings us back to that Captain America cover. I don’t know if Lang ever saw it, but the collision of fiction and history that opens Man Hunt echoes Simon and Kirby’s four-color fantasies. The film opens on Edenic images of a forest located, we’re told by a title, “somewhere in Germany—shortly before the War.” The camera moves in through mist-covered vegetation, then to the right, finding the footprint of an intruder in paradise. It belongs to Pidgeon, whom we soon see stalking through the forest, avoiding a Nazi soldier, then crouching at the end of a cliff. Lang lingers on the details of what happens next: Pidgeon pulls out a pair of binoculars, and his reaction reveals he’s found what he’s been looking for. He carefully assembles his rifle, calibrates it, and peers through the sight. At last, we see his prey: Adolf Hitler.

It’s a startling moment, but what follows is even more startling. Pidgeon pulls the trigger on an empty chamber, gives a mock salute, then decides to go on his way. Later, interrogated by the Nazis, he explains his actions as being part of a game. A famed hunter, Pidgeon has decided to embark on a “sporting stalk” that will put himself in the position to shoot the most-protected man on the planet, taking satisfaction in the fact that he could have killed Hitler, but having no intention of following through. And if the scene were to end with that salute, we’d have every reason to believe his excuse. But it doesn’t. As Pidgeon backs off, a change comes across his face. With little hesitation, he acts on the emotion gripping him, loads the gun and takes aim again. Only the inopportune drop of a leaf holds him back long enough for a guard to tackle him. The gun goes off but misses its target, and history resumes its awful course.

In the scenes that follow, a monocle-wearing George Sanders—who, with purring sadism, extends every aristocratic courtesy due his prisoner—questions Pidgeon as he listens to his sporting-stalk explanation. Then, when Pidgeon refuses to sign a confession for the attempted assassination that would implicate the British government, Sanders hands him over to be tortured and thrown off a cliff. After Pidgeon miraculously survives the fall, he jumps a ship to England with the help of a chipper cabin boy (Roddy McDowall), then has to evade a towering Nazi agent played by John Carradine as he wanders a Langian London of dark alleys and misty, forbidding bridges.

This cat-and-mouse game makes up the bulk of Man Hunt, whose title takes on added meanings as the film goes on. It’s terrifically suspenseful, stylishly executed, and highlighted by Joan Bennett’s performance as a London woman of common birth and dubious employment. (The Production Code office insisted her character have a sewing machine in her room, but she spends much of the film walking the streets and ending up on the giving and receiving end of suggestive comments.) Bennett gives Pidgeon shelter and introduces him to the pleasures of fish and chips while nursing a girlish crush on the handsome stranger and speaking in an accent that’s simultaneously thoroughly unconvincing and thoroughly charming. Alone, it would provide the material for a memorable film. Adapting the popular novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, John Ford screenwriter Dudley Nichols provides a crisp screenplay that makes it even more memorable. But it’s the opening and closing scenes of Man Hunt that fascinate me. [Mild spoilers for the latter in the paragraph that follows.]

Cornered by Sanders toward the end of the film, Pidgeon is again put in a position where his life depends on signing a confession that his sporting stalk was really an assassination attempt. He insists it’s all been a mistake, that he had no intent to kill. “It had to be a loaded rifle with my finger on the trigger,” he insists “with only my individual will, my civilized conscience between me and the elimination of your strutting little Caesar.” But the villain knows the hero better than he knows himself, and Sanders eventually bullies and angers Pidgeon into confessing—both to Sanders and to himself—that yes, in his heart of hearts, he wanted Hitler to die and to make himself “an instrument of all the pitiable, oppressed, suffering people of the world.” In that moment, he would shed blood, and maybe give up his life, to stop a madman. Pidgeon is speaking for Thorndike but also for England—which spent the years leading up to World War II engaging in a disastrous policy of appeasement—and for America, a country then looking into its own heart and deciding what, if anything, it could do for the pitiable, oppressed, and suffering.

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I thought it was, by a good stretch, the director’s weakest film. At the time, it struck me as an almost perversely light story of revenge, with virtually no ambiguity. Apart from its remarkable opening scene, I doubted I’d be thinking about it much in the weeks that followed, unlike every other Tarantino film I’d ever seen. (Well, apart from Four Rooms, but whatever.) I wrote a review that reflected that, filed it, and almost immediately found myself unable to stop thinking about the film. I stand by my review as an honest reflection of my feelings at the moment I wrote it—that’s all a review is, no matter what anyone else tells you—but when I watched Inglourious Basterds again, I liked it better. Much better. The way it played with images, history, and propaganda, particularly the fate it assigns to Hitler and his aides in the movie theater—I’m tiptoeing around the details for anyone who hasn’t seen the film—now looks to me ingenious, even profound, when it previously seemed almost irresponsible.

Watching Man Hunt reinforced that feeling. When 20th Century Fox rushed it into release a remarkable three months after the beginning of production, America was still waiting for its moment, wrestling with its civilized conscience with its finger on the trigger. But, the film insisted, the story could be different. Basterds rewrites history and illustrates the ways fantasy can overtake fact, if only for as long as the lights remain dark. In 2009, Tarantino couldn’t change anything, but his film echoed the wishful thinking of the Lang who put Hitler in Pidgeon’s rifle sights. Hitler escapes, but he ends Man Hunt a hunted man as British forces pour into Europe. America soon joined them, making real the dreams of Simon, Kirby, Chaplin, Lang, and anyone else who saw Hitler as he truly was. They all knew—as Hitler knew, and as Goebbels knew when/if he tried to recruit Lang—that stories and images have more power than guns, and that the fictions we create shape the realities in which we live.

Next: Breathless (1983)
Then: Murders In The Zoo (1933)