German expatriate Fritz Lang didn’t initiate his sixth American film. It was a Twentieth Century Fox project that the studio first offered to its then-resident master moviemaker John Ford, who passed on it in favor of his already busy schedule of transposing the hit play Tobacco Road and acclaimed novel How Green Was My Valley to the screen. But it was a potentially superb fit: Man Hunt (1941, debuting in New York 76 years ago today), an adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s acclaimed 1939 novel Rogue Male about a British hunter, holidaying in Bavaria, who draws a “sporting” bead through his unloaded rifle scope on a target – Adolf Hitler – and pays dearly for it when he is discovered and tortured by the Fuhrer’s Nazi bodyguards and is himself hunted in a chase that boomerangs between Germany and London and back again. There were issues. His leading man (Walter Pidgeon, borrowed from MGM) and lady (Joan Bennett, after early consideration of Anne Baxter) were not top-of-mind choices. Script references to his leading lady’s occupation of prostitute had to be rigorously mollified due to Production Code dictates. Though allowing Lang, who had delivered sturdy successes to Fox in the Technicolor Westerns The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941), considerable latitude, studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck would keep a careful eye on his work. But ultimately, Lang’s gifts for eliciting tough and true performances (from George Sanders, John Carradine, Ludwig Stössel, young Roddy McDowall in his first Hollywood film and a brace of top-notch supporting players as well as the two leads); filling the frame well and excitingly, buttressed by the efforts of cinematographer Arthur Miller and art directors Richard Day and Wiard Ihnen; and fiercely honed editing expertise, help by editor Allen McNeil and particularly assistant editor Gene Fowler Jr., fired on all cylinders here.
There was also the splendid luck of the draw involved. In his detailed 1997 study Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan asserts: “In Dudley Nichols, Lang had the only American screenwriter with whom he was able to forge a partnership that succeeded beyond one film – and also one of Hollywood’s best. The director’s relationship with Joan Bennett would prove equally fortuitous on several levels. The actress was able to provide a sex appeal that had been oddly lacking in his American films up till now. The care the director took in lighting, the scrutiny of the camerawork, the emotional undertow of Man Hunt – all suggested a man who was drawn to his leading lady as Fritz Lang had not been drawn since the time of Gerda Maurus [star of Lang’s German-made Spies (1928) and Woman in the Moon (1929)].” That luck also extended to his cadre of collaborators. McGilligan also reports: “Lang was forced more than once to tiptoe around the studio to get the job done his way. When it came to the scene where the Joan Bennett character pretends to be a streetwalker, the director fell back on a clever ruse to win the day. Lang went into a huddle with the unit manager and cameraman. He told them he wanted to try the scene as originally envisioned, despite Zanuck’s orders. The unit manager complained that he couldn’t authorize spending a penny on anything Zanuck hadn’t approved, but Lang had a strategy around that. With the empathetic Arthur Miller, he conspired to shoot the scene on a standing set, with the background fading away into fog and mist. When Zanuck saw the dailies, according to Lang, he didn’t even realize that the director had gone behind his back. He didn’t care that the scene had not been dropped, nor substantially altered; he was too bewitched by the visual imagery. ‘Where the hell’s that set?’ Zanuck kept asking. The scene stayed in. It’s another Lang anecdote that may be apocryphal, but its portrait of behind-the-scenes chicanery reflects a larger truth about the journey of Man Hunt to the screen,” resulting in “the only one of the director’s Twentieth Century Fox productions that can be called decisively Langian.”
Reflecting on the film in his invaluable 2008 compendium Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, historian David Thomson muses: “Lang and Hitchcock went to school on each other, and it’s interesting to compare Man Hunt with The 39 Steps in that both books were adventures told from the point of view of an English upper-class gent. Hitchcock believes that polish never fades, even if it goes down fighting. But Lang has seen a world that knows not to trust anything for lasting value. The Hitchcock hero retains his identity. For Lang, it can be the first thing to go. And, in an era of stardom, Lang’s anxiety was far more pessimistic than Hitchcock’s, though Hitch would go on to paint darker portraits of individual dread.” For nail-biting suspense and harrowing action, Man Hunt is hard to beat. Its lustrous Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, featuring an Isolated Music Track of its thrilling Alfred Newman score, an Audio Commentary by McGilligan and the revealing documentary Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt, is available here at a limited-time 50% off list price through June 30: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27569/MAN-HUNT-1941-SPECIAL-PROMOTION/. It’s rewardingly well worth the hunt.