Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #7: Man Hunt

US, 1941. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy MacDowall.

Vintage Hollywood often had a bewildering array of accents on display, but Man Hunt is especially disorienting. Canadian Walter Pidgeon plays an upper-class Englishman with no pretense of an English accent. American Joan Bennett plays a cockney streetwalker with an appropriate accent that is mostly admirable but occasionally slips. George Sanders plays a monocled Nazi, speaking his German lines with what sounds to me like an unimpeachable accent, but his English lines in that lofty British George Sanders voice. American John Carradine plays someone we must assume to be a German, but is pretending to be an Englishman, and thus delivers his two lines in a mushy English accent. None of this is to the detriment of the film, I just found it endlessly amusing.

Pidgeon is a master game hunter on holiday in pre-war Germany who wants to prove to himself that he could take out Hitler. He assumes the position with an unloaded rifle, gets a clear shot, then puts in a bullet so that, he claims, he can really know that he could have done it, by jove. But that's just when a Nazi minion catches him, and takes him to visit George Sanders, who has him brutally beaten - in an effective off-camera manner that is far more uncomfortable than what they could get away with showing in 1941. Lang left Germany in the mid-1930s and there is no doubt regarding his feelings about the Nazis in this film, made before the U.S. entered the war. Through suggestion and tense, claustrophobic cinematography, he plays up the brutality of the regime to the hilt.

Pidgeon escapes onto a cargo ship back home to England, but once he arrives he discovers that if he makes his presence known it will create an international incident, so he and the newly-arrived Nazi spies engage in a game of cat and mouse.

The scenario of a man on the run in a landscape littered with memorable eccentrics bears more than a slight resemblance to the Hitchcock formula, written in stone by 1935's The 39 Steps. But the feel of the film is entirely Lang's own, and Hitchcock was never this political - Lang's scenarist was Dudley Nichols, who won an Oscar for John Ford's IRA classic The Informer (watch this space!), and became the first person to ever refuse the award, for the Academy's refusal to show support for the actors' and writers' unions.

Man Hunt manages to go on just long enough to milk its premise without wearing out its welcome. The final showdown between Sanders, who has trapped Pidgeon in a cave, with only makeshift items from which to construct a weapon, and his quarry is thoroughly satisfying. It's not a masterpiece, and I'm convinced the only reason it scored a DVD release was the recent phase of assassinating-Hitler movies (all two of them), but is well worth a look.

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