I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Geoffrey Household’s classic chase thriller Rogue Male (see blogs passim). Most recently I passed on the news that there is to be a new film version starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
However, it’s not the first time film-makers have tried to bring Household’s book to the screen. There was a television version on the BBC in the 1980s starring Peter O’Toole, which stuck very closely to the book.
But long before that, in 1941, just before the United States entered the War, Hollywood had a go, though it changed some elements of the original story. The producers and the director, Fritz Lang, had something of a battle to get the story passed by the censor who – with the USA not yet at war – was frightened of upsetting Nazi Germany.
The resulting film might have toned down some of Household’s original plot, but Man Hunt is quite stunning in its own way, particularly with Fritz Lang’s clever direction and the atmospheric black and white photography. There’s an edge of suspense that keeps the action rolling along. Hollywood studios seldom re-created London quite so well as here.
We never learn the name of Household’s hero in the book, but here he’s Captain Alan Thorndike, played with gusto by Walter Pidgeon. Following a failed “sporting stalk” – and the target in the gun-sight is Adolf Hitler – Thorndike is captured by the Gestapo.
We never see the scenes of interrogation, the torture and beatings are only hinted at, though very effectively. Thorndike escapes to London where he’s rescued by a beautiful street waif called Jerry (played with real poignancy by Joan Bennett). There is no such character in the novel, but she’s a great addition to the film.
They are chased across London by Gestapo officer Major Quive-Smith, played with considerable relish by George Sanders in one of his finest performances – a truly believable Nazi – and a tall cadaverous man with a walking stick (John Carradine at his most menacing).
These London scenes are particularly well done, particularly the chase through the London Underground, which is the first climax of the original novel. Gripping stuff! The photography, direction and editing, plus the seedy settings of dockland London and the Tube, give this part of the picture a film noir feel.
In Household’s novel, his hero constantly considers whether his attempt to kill Hitler was just a “sporting stalk”, just to see if, as a hunter of big game, he could get close enough to the Fuhrer. Or did he always intend to pull the trigger and end the Nazi tyranny?
This question, fundamental to the aim of the original story, isn’t ignored. Thorndike considers the answer until the end of the film, when the tragic consequences of his actions come to haunt him. The answer was very relevant to audiences in 1941, on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a relevancy today.
A few months after the film was made the USA was at war with Germany. Hollywood fully joined the propaganda battle against the Third Reich, with movies good and bad. But Fritz Lang and 20th Century Fox set a very high standard, months earlier, with Man Hunt.