Having left Germany and his wife - the Nazi-sympathising Thea von Harbou - behind, Fritz Lang was soon well established in Hollywood. Although he was never allowed the huge budgets that he’d been given at UFA to make Metropolis (1927) he applied his talents to many successful genre films - Westerns like The Return of Frank James (1940) and crime dramas such as You Only Live Once (1937) and Fury (1936). He later became one of the key directors of film noir.
Man Hunt is an espionage thriller with a twist. Shot in 1941 and released six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is a pro-war/anti-neutrality piece of propaganda. It was one of a cycle of films produced despite an act of neutrality that prohibited such overt anti-German sentiments - although the Lease/Lend Act of March 1941 had officially confirmed US support (financial at least) to the Allies.
Introduced by the title ‘Somewhere in Germany shortly before the war’, the film opens with Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) carefully preparing his rifle, setting the sights and lining up Adolf Hitler in the cross-hairs. He fires an empty chamber, tipping his hat, having achieved his ‘sporting stalk’. The challenge, he later explains upon his capture, is merely to get close enough to the target to kill and not actually fire. ‘The sport is in the chase, not the kill… I no longer kill, not even small game,’ he explains to the none-too-impressed Gestapo. The Nazis try to get Thorndike to sign a confession saying he was working for the British government. He escapes and finds himself the quarry of a less sporting stalk.
What follows is a studio-bound 39 Steps-style extended chase sequence as Thorndike is pursued by a determined bunch of Nazi spies from Germany to London to Bognor Regis. But the ‘high concept’ is not what makes this a great film, if anything it is one of the film’s flaws - a McGuffin so big it distracts rather than merely setting the plot in motion. Despite (or perhaps because of) its propagandist purposes little is made of real anti-Nazi sentiment. Rather than questioning the more ‘serious’ issues such as German expansionism, suppression of political opponents or anti-Semitism, Thorndike merely ridicules Nazi salutes and expresses distaste at beheadings.
The film really picks up when we reach London. The city becomes a wonderful Hollywood concoction of shadowy, foggy cobble-stoned streets, pearly-clad singing cockneys with ridiculous accents and some very odd-looking fish and chips. Joan Bennett’s perky Jerry Stokes may have had the same voice coach as Dick Van Dyke (‘5 quid lumme’) but it is in the interplay between her common (possibly toned-down prostitute) street waif and Pidgeon’s incredibly decent upper-class man-of-leisure that the film gets interesting. Bennett went on to star in two of Lang’s out-and-out American masterpieces, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), but her character here is far removed from the femmes fatales she was to play in the later films.
The unbalanced relationship between the two develops as Jerry turns from reluctant assistant to aspirant lover. Thorndike condescends to treat her with respect (his snooty family less so) and even eats fish and chips without cutlery. But she is always a child who does not understand the serious world of adults and tragically fails to realise that in 1940s Hollywood - as with the white man and ‘Indian girl’ in Westerns - relations between upper-class men and low-class women can never be. The prostitute can be good, beautiful and even noble but she can never get her man - the best she can hope for is to give up her life for him.
Man Hunt is not in the same league as the greatest moments of Lang’s German period (1931’s M, of course) or the very best of his US films, partly because Thorndike is too unquestionably decent. He has none of the revenge-driven dark side of Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953) or Spencer Tracy in Fury, or Edward G. Robinson’s struggles with his subconscious in the afore mentioned films starring Joan Bennett. But for the middle 40 minutes at least, the same genius that made those films can be seen at work.