It’s a Pidgeon hunt in this Fritz Lang 1941 WW2 assassination and international relations chase.
Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick movies for the other to watch & review once a month, thereby expanding each others’ viewing horizons. I also accept the random challenge from those who dare, weeks in between.
I am a huge fan of Fritz Lang, and when considering the very best noir directors, he falls on my scale between greatest and number 1. He handles darkness, persecution and inescapable fate with style better than anyone, and I enjoy everything I’ve ever seen of his, so when Mike suggested Man Hunt (1941) as my next challenge movie I was shocked, SHOCKED! that it somehow got by me all these years. Well, now that’s remedied. Lang’s movies are always a visual treat, and Man Hunt didn’t disappoint in that department, with stark black and white contrast, beautifully composed shots in unusual and fascinating settings, creative camera angles, moonlight that casts patterns through lace curtains, faces illuminated by streetlights, wet cobblestones shining from headlight lamps and streetlights through the fog. You could screen cap any one scene from this movie and have a gorgeous image suitable for framing.
The story starts with a literal Man Hunt and a figurative bang. It could have been a potentially massive literal bang, but no luck on that count because it consists of an empty rifle pointed at no less a target than Adolf Hitler. The rifle is empty you see, because famous big game hunter Walter Pidgeon is such an accomplished shot that he’s grown bored and given himself the philosophical exercise of doing a “sporting stalk,” that is, seeing if it would be possible to target the Nazi “little Caesar” just to prove he could. After the satisfaction of holding Hitler in his crosshairs, Pidgeon decides to pop in a bullet and truly test his willpower, but right then gets caught by the Nazis. Major George Sanders, also an expert hunter, interrogates Pidgeon quite civilly, then switches to torture, and then to staging a suicide, all in an effort to tie Pidgeon to an international incident as pretext for a dispute with England (it’s still 1939, eve of Poland invasion in this story). But Sanders’ plan goes bad when Pidgeon escapes, and this kicks off the other Man Hunt to which the title refers. Note that Sanders wears a monocle just like Fritz Lang, and it’s used in a great way, reflecting in the dark to spook Joan Bennett when she returns to her darkened flat.
As Pidgeon makes his way back to England, battered and weary, we witness his encounters with a number of good characters and performances. Roddy McDowall plays a clever, mature-for-his-age cabin boy on the ship where Pidgeon is a stowaway. Roddy does a fine turn, thinking fast, stuffing the giant man into a tiny closet, showing him a hiding spot and then keeping both Nazis and captain distracted. Roddy throws in his usual little scene stealing moment, this time with a little tongue curling trick to show you he’s thinking hard. Sanders’ man John Carradine arrives at this point, the “walking corpse” in charge of this stage of the search. Carradine is fabulous, a man of few words but many scenes, stalking Pidgeon like a horror movie nightmare monster, unshakeable, determined, seemingly everywhere.
Next comes Lang favourite Joan Bennett, who helps Pidgeon and tags along to experience his upper crust life and circle of snooty friends who act like they’ve never seen a commoner before. Pidgeon is high class, someone who’s never eaten fish and chips (!!!!! I mean, !!!!) but he’s no snob; as Bennett says, he doesn’t just act like a gent, he really is one. I’ve always seen Pidgeon as heroic, and here he gets to have a couple MacGyver moments–the weapon he makes in a few minutes in his wilderness hideout at the end is fantastic. You’d be hard pressed to find an actor this believable as the genteel, sophisticated principled aristocrat who can still fight dirty, live in a cave when he has to, and also convincingly lose his temper and get deadly when the time for soul searching and parlor games is over.
There are moments in the middle where the action slows down a bit to focus on the budding admiration between Pidgeon and Bennett but it’s not damaging since even there the style of the movie is so engaging. For example I liked how the pair talked to the camera (standing in for each other) when they’re about to part. But things pick up nicely when Pidgeon, Sanders and Carradine descend into the Underground for an exciting chase which Lang ends in grand style, in the silence and shadows of a darkened tunnel where identities are reversed and another stage of the hunt begins.
Very much enjoyed Man Hunt, and recommend it to anyone who wants a somewhat unusual but fast moving WW2 thriller with a fine cast and that signature expressionist eye candy that makes Lang movies so rich and beautiful.