MAN HUNT (Fritz Lang, 1941)

The hallucinatory opening verges on fairy tale: a British sportsman silently proceeds through a Bavarian forest. Alan Thorndike gets his quarry into the sights of his high-powered rifle: it is Adolf Hitler at the Berghof, his retreat at Berchtesgaden. Thorndike squeezes the trigger, but there is no sound; this is Thorndike’s test of his own prowess as a hunter, not a political assassination. However, the Germans are not understanding.
     Based on Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel Rogue Male, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt centers on the pursuit of Thorndike, who has escaped their clutches, by German agents. It is a What if . . . ? story, with pulsating resonance for its own time. Whatever his original intent, Thorndike is determined to get a second shot and blow away Hitler to Kingdom Come. A bit of brutality from the Gestapo and he is radicalized, engaged: a prescient stab at how the U.S. would come to enter the Second World War.
     Alas, the powerful opening gives way to an unconvincing thriller, with only George Sanders’ unctuous and effete Gestapo officer an interesting figure along the way. Walter Pidgeon is stodgy as Thorndike and Joan Bennett, in the first of four performances for Lang, is ridiculously bouncy and cheery as Jerry, a Cockney prostitute—because prostitutes are such a happy lot, you know. Bennett, so wonderful in Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach (1947) and Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment (1949), is amateurish here.
     After Jerry is killed by the Nazis, the brooch that Thorndike had given her, in the shape of an arrow, which she had worn in her cap, figures prominently in Thorndike’s act of revenge and his final ingenious escape. What if . . . ?
     Lang was in Hollywood, of course, after having fled Hitler’s Germany. Dudley Nichols wrote the script.

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