Fritz Lang is known as one of the greatest directors of film noir, one of its founding forces in Hollywood cinema. His career in Weimar cinema and talent for German Expressionism brought for such classics as Metropolis (1931) and M (1931) — the latter offering a key starting point for what would become film noir, the cynical yet poignant tale of a serial murderer of children (played powerfully by Peter Lorre). In the U.S., facing the constraints of a film industry based on financial concerns far more than artistic, Lang established success with dark pictures showing the underside of city life, including its crooked men and double-dealing women. Among his best known noir efforts are the seedy B film Scarlet Street (1945) and the stylish The Big Heat (1953). In between his Weimar output and his success with what would eventually become called film noir, Lang directed in other genres, including the Western and war dramas. Perhaps the most interesting example of this transition period is Man Hunt (1941).
Noir lovers will see many familiar faces in addition to the director, including Joan Bennett, George Sanders (as a gloriously almost-campy Nazi officer), and John Carradine. The film, set just pre-WWII, tells the story of British hunter Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) as he vacations in Bavaria and just so happens to get Hitler in his gun sight. When discovered, he is tortured and left for dead but escapes to London. He is aided by a young woman even as German agents are hot on his trail.
Some critics read the film as semi-autobiographical because Lang did flee Nazi Germany. He was horrified that Hitler enjoyed Metropolis, and claimed (without substantiation) that Goebbels wanted to hire him as the head of the Nazi film industry, to be entirely comprised of propaganda, of course.
Furthering its historical significance, Man Hunt was one of several film mentioned in 1941 Senate subcommittee hearings about propaganda in Hollywood cinema. There were objections to “warmongering” pictures. Soon, however, Pearl Harbor determined the U.S. to join the war effort and the issue was moot.
(John Ford was originally offered the film, but turned it down; how different it would be with Ford as its director we can only imagine!)
Fans of film noir should attend the film’s style — from its dark subject matter to its soundtrack, and especially its cinematography. Here are a few example shots to whet your appetite:
Ultimately, though Man Hunt is not Lang’s most important or most effective film, it is an engaging adventure and a compelling part of his long career as a director.
Warnings: Beware Saunders’ scenery chewing (though for me that’s a plus), Joan Bennett’s Cockney accent (Eliza Doolittle, eat your heart out), and the terrible outdoor sets.
If I’ve tempted you sufficiently, do join us for the live tweet of Man Hunt on Sunday, January 31 at 9pm ET. The hashtag is, as always #BNoirDetour.