Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lang Stalks the Dictator: Man Hunt and Rogue Male

There's a legend that Joseph Goebbels offered Fritz Lang an official propaganda position in the Nazi Party and that Lang fled Germany the very night of the proposal. Film historians have cast doubts on this fine story, though parts of it remain plausible. The Nazis, ironically enough, really liked Lang's great anti-totalitarian film Metropolis; Hitler himself was a fan. Lang, unlike other brilliant directors, never did sell out to evil. Lang made propaganda films, it's true, but he made them for the right side.

Lang's 1941 film Man Hunt was apparently somewhat controversial at Fox. Lang made the film after the Second World War began, but before the US entered. Filmmakers were supposed to be, if not neutral, then at least not stridently anti-Nazi. Lang, however, knew the Nazis too well to bow to Fox's political correctness. Man Hunt is an angry, even furious, film, and all the better for it.

The protagonist of Man Hunt is Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a British aristocrat and famous hunter. Thorndike, though a great shot and a brilliant stalker of prey, has sworn off violence. When he gets an animal in his sights, he doesn't pull the trigger; he knows he's won. The film opens with Thorndike in Germany, "hunting" a wicked and well-guarded man: Hitler. Thorndike gets the dictator in his sights, but is rudely interrupted by a Nazi soldier. The German villains beat and torture Thorndike and then throw him off a cliff so his death will appear an accident. Surprising no one save the inept fascists, he lives. Thorndike escapes Germany in a few short scenes, then returns to London to romance a whore with a (surprise!) heart of gold (Joan Bennett) and evade vengeful German agents played by George Sanders and John Carradine.

Man Hunt is an adaptation of Geoffrey Household's classic thriller Rogue Male. Though the plot of the film is quite close to that of the book, Lang's adaptation of the story still seems somewhat loose. Some aspects of the film surpass the novel; the ending's melodramatic plot twist is far, far more effective in Man Hunt than in Rogue Male. Inevitably, however, Man Hunt lacks the solitary feel of Rogue Male. In Household's novel, the unnamed hero spends much of his time alone and in hiding; though not surrounded by colorful supporting characters, his tale is nonetheless enthralling. Given the nature of the cinematic medium – and the desires of the 1941 movie audience – Lang had to make huge changes to the source material.

This post is really about Man Hunt, but I figure I should briefly "review" Rogue Male. Though it's shorter and slower-paced than most modern thrillers, I found it more compelling than most anything produced today. I read it in a day and liked it enough that I plan to hunt down used copies of other Household novels. Whatever faults it might have, especially regarding the narrator's psychology, Rogue Male has become one of my favorite books of its genre.

Rogue Male delights in the minutiae of the unnamed protagonist's escape to England: We learn how he evaded hunters and dogs, how he stole new clothes to replace his ruined ones, how he recuperated hidden on a river island, how he disguised himself to rent a boat, etc. It's all very interesting and suspenseful, but not traditionally cinematic. In the film, Thorndike stumbles away from the Nazi hunting party... and the film cuts to him rowing into a harbor and seeking out an England-bound boat. Later in the movie, Thorndike hides out in the countryside and outfits a cave with food, a slat-and-straw bed, and a concealed entrance. The film doesn't delve into the dwelling's construction and, more importantly, doesn't properly convey its claustrophobia. In Rogue Male, when the villainous faux-gentleman who calls himself "Quive-Smith" seals up the cave, it's horrific. The narrator-protagonist describes the dirt, grime, stench, and general horridness of the situation so well that I shuddered. Lang's cinematic take on the ordeal is far less harrowing – Lang's cave seems far larger and far cleaner than Household's. Household's cave scene – forty pages and a tour de force – occupies maybe ten minutes in the movie. Both film and novel, however, make Quive-Smith and his cronies thoroughly loathsome; the hero's eventual revenge is a triumphant moment in both. Once Thorndike scrupled to kill the animals he hunted, but he comes to realize that violence is sometimes a necessary evil. Appeasement and neutrality are no shield against radical evil.

Man Hunt's biggest departure from Rogue Male comes with the introduction of Joan Bennett's character, Jerry. There is a small romantic plot in Rogue Male, but it takes place before the main action of the book; it's more a sketch than a story. For large portions of its running time, Man Hunt stops being a thriller and turns into a romantic comedy. It's a trifle awkward; Thorndike's paternalistic speeches ("My child") to Jerry are especially cringeworthy. And while the Jerry plot initially seems shoehorned in, it has a very good payoff. One question remains: Why is the female lead in a film so full of wicked Germans named "Jerry"? Aren't the jerries the villains of the piece?

As he demonstrated earlier in his career, Lang could do both gleamy and gritty, both shiny and seedy. In Man Hunt, Lang emphasizes the physicality of his characters and settings. Though we're introduced to Thorndike as a carefree Brit abroad, he's shortly beaten and scarred; when he flees the Germans after his cliff fall, he's entirely covered in marsh filth. When his pursuers come across his abandoned boot, Lang fills the screen with its muddy decrepitude. Instead of making a star-studded trifle, Lang chose to emphasize the cruel reality of the Nazi threat. These are real people, the camerawork suggests, and they're after you. It's no surprise that the last scene includes newsreel footage of the Battle of Britain. Lang is angry and wishes his audience to feel as he does.

Some films, like Casablanca, can entirely transcend their propagandistic histories. Man Hunt isn't quite on that level, but it remains both thoroughly watchable and (generally) exciting in late 2009. Given that Fritz Lang directed, I can't say that I am too taken aback. The romantic scenes may seem forced, the special effects old-fashioned, and the violence tame, but Man Hunt shows its age far less than most of the era's films. There are a lot of bad political films being made today. Skip them and watch Man Hunt, a political movie and a minor classic.

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