Wartime Man Hunt
Measured against a career studded with landmarks such as Metropolis, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fury, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt was a minor effort. But the director’s 1941 movie, out now on DVD, was an important step in his Hollywood career, gaining the German refugee his footing in the New World and pointing the way, with its chases in a dark city set like a trap, for his journey into film noir.
It’s also historically interesting as one of the first Hollywood movies to confront Nazism directly. Released in June, 1941, Man Hunt promoted the British cause half a year before America entered World War II and during a time when Congress held hearings to enforce Hollywood’s neutrality in the global conflict.
Lang’s anti-Nazi credentials have been disputed, but Man Hunt may well have solidified his reputation as the man who turned down a Nazi offer to head Germany’s film industry. But more moving than Man Hunt’s politics is the bittersweet blend of romance and fatalism, and the way Lang’s camera lovingly caressed the movie’s tragic love interest, played by Joan Bennett.
The plot had the unmet promise of a Hitchcock thriller and was banged out with the speed of a B movie. Walter Pigeon seems far too affable an English gentleman as the man who wants to assassinate Hitler, and his foe (suave George Sanders) looks less than fully engaged. Yet, Man Hunt includes several deliciously conceived and executed scenes. As Milwaukee film historian (and Lang biographer) Patrick McGilligan says in his commentary, Man Hunt was a brave film in its moment and crucial to Lang at a time he was struggling for acceptance in Hollywood’s studio system. In Germany he was hailed as a visionary genius. In America, he was just another director on contract, hard-pressed to maintain his perspective from one studio assignment to the next.