Man Hunt is a decent bit of pro-WWII interventionism propaganda from Fritz Lang. Interestingly (and because of the year it was made, no doubt), much of the anti-Nazi sentiment for the first 80 minutes of the film is expressed politely and politically. The British don’t want to offend the German government. The film slows considerably in its second act with a really redundant romance, but the last third is surprisingly dark, despite the obligatory nationalist monologue and ending.
Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon, whose delivery, with the trailed off end of sentences, sounds a lot like that of Cary Grant), is a British soldier captured in Germany and accused of an attempted assassination on Adolf Hitler, an accusation he denies. Thorndike escapes back to England, meets the cockney love interest Jerry (Joan Bennett, who, despite some rough scripted parts, is really quite good) and tries to outrun the various National Socialists out to get him, including Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, alternating between English and German…I’m a Sanders fan, but it’s always disappointing, though inevitable, to hear the foreign villain just resort to the English language).
There’s some great sly dialogue in here that certainly pulled one over on the Hays Office. It’s implied a few times that Jerry either is, or has been mistaken for a prostitute.
Thorndike gives Jerry money with interest in return for a loan. She refuses to accept. In front of confused on-lookers (whose looks of disbelief clearly indicate that they think she’s a prostitute) he tells her, “Don’t you get stubborn with me young lady. You want to get choked again?” Zing. That’s some amazing writing.
Then later, the same basic gag happens again. Thorndike attempts to depart from Jerry (this is one of the sources of annoyance in the mid-act. He tries to leave, she pouts, they talk. It happens time and again to the point that Thorndike even comments on it in this same scene: “I can’t stand a blubbering female.” Talk to your writers.). He tries to give Jerry 500 pounds. She refuses: “I won’t take it.” He replies, “Oh yes you will. I’m going to have my way at least once with you.” Hays missed that one.
This isn’t Lang’s strongest film. It’s sort of between him having his best period with the likes of M and Metropolis, and before some of his better American noirs like The Big Heat and Scarlet Street.
Some of the direction starts to feel good and then tails off a bit. Here’s an early moment. Thorndike lines up his shot-
-and gets Adolf Hitler in his sights (gotta love a fictional representation of Hitler. Well done, Carl Ekberg, Hitler-extraordaire):
The expected shot follows. A close-up on the trigger finger. This works. It’s nice and tense.
But because we can assume this isn’t pre-dating Inglorious Basterds by that much, it’s a safe assumption that the trigger will either not be pulled or the bullet will miss somehow. So, before seeing the next shot, I thought it’d be one of two things:
a) Back to the POV of Hitler to show him being obscured, the bullet missing, etc; or
b) Someone off-screen attacking or yelling at Thorndike.
It’s closer to b, but really neither. Instead we get this wide, showing a Nazi soldier, frame left:
Narratively, this is fine. Thorndike’s about to be stopped. But it really takes the steam out of things. Keeping the frame tighter would keep the foot on the gas and keep the audience at the same informational level as Thorndike.
Hitchcock’s films often have moments where the audience knows more than the main character, and thereby the film becomes more suspenseful. This is not as successful in that way. Why?
Maybe it’s because the stakes are considerably low. It’s a 1941 film. Hitler’s not going to get shot and Walter Pidgeon isn’t going to be killed.
Maybe it’s also because of Hitchcock’s shot selection and blocking as compared here to Lang’s. Lang doesn’t give the Nazi soldier the possibility of missing Thorndike. Lang does cut back in after the above shots, but not often enough in order to stretch out time and play even more with the suspense. Lang doesn’t, for example, cut in to the Nazi soldier, maybe showing him suspecting something, drawing a weapon, etc. Cutting in to the soldier would also allow us to – at least temporarily – lose sight of Thorndike. His being off-screen would keep us unaware of his progress – is he any closer to taking the shot? That’s suspense.