A fugitive kidnaps a child and they form a close bond in this excellent thriller.
The 1952 movie Hunted (U.S. The Stranger In Between), wastes no time getting started, as the camera follows a boy (Jon Whiteley) into the cellar of a derelict London building where he discovers Dirk Bogarde hiding next to a dead body. Unsure what to do with this little witness, Bogarde snatches the boy, and keeps a close grip on him as he tries to get into his flat for some cash, wanders about town trying to pawn clothes and score some cigarettes and a bite to eat. We eventually learn that the murdered man is Bogarde’s boss and that his wife (Elizabeth Sellars) had an affair with him, making the killing a crime of passion and making Bogarde more sympathetic.
Whiteley sticks with Bogarde from the start because he’s in no hurry to go home, if you could even call it that. He’s been adopted by an abusive couple, and he’s also a mischief maker whose most recent achievement is setting the curtains on fire, an act that guarantees him another level of beating. Though Whiteley initially tells Bogarde he doesn’t like him, the two outcasts become attached through their adventures and the picture is essentially a buddy movie, one of the original “fugitive-and-child” thrillers.
As the pair make it into Scotland to seek refuge at the home of Bogarde’s brother (Julian Somers), Bogarde tries to shake the boy, but Whiteley is by now fully devoted and even risks his life jumping off a bridge onto a moving train to stay with his new father figure. From then Bogarde is overtly caring and protective, giving his last piece of food and carrying the dead-tired boy through the countryside, breaking into silly giggles as he watches the boy stuff his face with fries the first full meal they get.
Whiteley gives a fantastic, totally natural performance. He’s a lovable tyke of few words but always the right ones, and is always hungry for food as well as crumbs of love and attention. He positively lights up at any sign of kindness and you get the feeling when he finally laughs that it’s something he might never have done, not this genuinely. This was Whiteley’s first film of the five that he made, and despite such a low movie count he has the distinction of being one of a dozen Academy Juvenile Award winners, for The Little Kidnappers (1953). He was to work with Bogarde again in The Spanish Gardener (1956), but after those few movies young Whiteley chose (better to say his mother chose for him) academics over movies and went on to become a noted art historian and writer.
Hunted is highly suspenseful, peppered with tense bits like the pair trying to slog through a marshy area, hiding in shadows, climbing down off ledges, jumping on the backs of trucks or slipping into boats, increasingly working as a team to get things done. When they stay at a boarding house, their landlady is suspicious about them but manages to switch off the radio just as the announcer begins to describe the child abducting “cellar murderer.” They’re always just a hair, a move away from being caught but manage to slip away each time, and you root for them more with each close call. The plot and pacing keeps you glued all the way, thanks to director Charles Chricton, whose The Lavender Hill Mob I reviewed here.
Hunted works as a thriller but is also much more, with strong drama, interesting characters and memorable moments. There’s the detective who immediately recognizes that Whiteley’s parents are anything but caring and tells them off, or the landlady (Kay Walsh) who bathes the boy, notices lash marks all over his back and quizzes him about his family and the man he came in with. That night, Bogarde tells Whiteley a long and involved bedtime story that is his own autobiography, where he is the sailor in a happy marriage to a fair princess who learns his fair bride loves another. Hardly children’s bedtime story material, but Bogarde makes it a rich bit of acting that is sold all the way when the camera turns to a tearful Whiteley. “Why’d you have to come with me? It’s my life!” a frustrated Bogarde scolds the exhausted boy when he collapses in a field, and in the next instant Bogarde melts at the tears he’s caused, comforts the child again and carries him further (that carrying is echoed in a powerful final scene). When the little one becomes critically ill Bogarde must choose between the boy’s well being or his own freedom, which is by this point within easy reach. Through it all Bogarde gives a fine, understated, heartbreaking performance as the man who’s tormented, cruel and dangerous on the surface but still a gentle, romantic and honorable man beneath.
Bogarde and Whiteley have amazing chemistry and forge a tight bond as they try to escape their respective miseries, and end up finding companionship and happiness in each other. Though their time together is brief, you know the boy will have learned valuable lessons, and you will have been moved by their relationship and Bogarde’s inevitable sacrifice.