Man Hunt (1941) Blu-ray Review: Ein Film von Fritz Lang? Oh Heck, Ja!

Once, as a child in the 1980s, I found myself sitting up late one night watching TV. It was nothing entirely new for me – it still isn’t, in fact – but the sensation I experienced that particular night was, as I became privy to what has since become an all-time favorite episode of the ingenious ’60s television series The Outer Limits, “The Man Who Was Never Born”. Moreover, it was then and there that the closing narration of that particular episode – as delivered by the series’ “Control Voice”, Vic Perrin, revealed a piece of well-written dialogue. “It is said that if you move a single pebble on the beach, you set up a different pattern, and everything in the world is changed. It can also be said that love can change the future, if it is deep enough, true enough, and selfless enough. It can prevent a war, prohibit a plague, keep the whole world… whole.”

Fast-forward to me as an adult in 2009, wherein a DVD of Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt arrived on my doorstep, thus enabling me to witness what has gone on to become another all-time favorite in my eclectic collection of various odds and ends from the realms of film and television. As the 1941 thriller opens, we witness English big game hunter Captain Alan Thorndike – as played by the great Walter Pidgeon – nesting himself atop a cliff somewhere in the Bavarian Alps in 1939, to wit he sets the sight of his precision rifle on none other than Adolf Hitler himself. Upon seeing that scene for the very first time, I could not help but think of Perrin’s dialogue. In fact, upon visiting the film once more in 2014, I still heard his soothing narration as I watched Capt. Thorndike pull the trigger on his unloaded gun before giving out a good-natured (and decidedly British) wave.

For you see, Thorndike was merely engaging in what he calls a “sporting stalk” – as the all-but-retired hunter now seeks his by tracking down and not killing his target. At least, that’s what he repeatedly tells the German officer (George Sanders, sporting a monocle) who is in charge of interrogating the British citizen after he is captured by a nearby patrol. But the very fact that Thorndike does load his rifle shortly before being caught indicates that he is perhaps not so certain of his motives himself. And thus begins the underlying political message behind Fritz Lang’s oft-neglected masterpiece; an adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s popular 1939 novel Rogue Male that essentially offered itself as a wake-up call to America’s snoozing during the first half of World War II – made at a time when it was explicitly prohibited for filmmaker to do so at that!

In fact, even before Man Hunt made its well-received debut in June of 1941, the Hays Office ensured the film took a not-so-hateful approach to its depiction of Germany and its people. But Lang felt otherwise. In fact, his own wife had joined the Nazi party, while he remained ever-cautious, particularly because of his Jewish heritage. But once Joseph Goebbels – impressed by the director’s early expressionistic work such as Metropolis and M – appeared asking him to become the official head of Nazi filmmaking, Lang made swift plans to hightail it to America. Even after Man Hunt premiered, it became the object of controversy by officials who wondered if the film carried perhaps too big of a political message (and it does). Alas, once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the matter was quickly dropped, and history as we know it was carried out.

But let’s get back to the film here, kids. Captured, interrogated, and tortured, Pidgeon’s Thorndike is asked to sign a confession stating that he planned to assassinate the demented man he refers to as a “strutting little Caesar” on the direct orders of the British Government – which would not only make Great Britain look bad to the rest of the world, but would enable Hitler to start his war just a wee bit sooner. But our hero refuses, of course, and is promptly tossed off a cliff by the Nazis to be “discovered” the following day as an accident victim. The tide shifts however when the bad guys find that Pidgeon not only survived his fall, but has mended his broken wings and learned to fly once more (sorry).

Miraculously managing to get back to England (with a little help from a cabin boy, as played by a very young Roddy McDowall), Thorndike soon discovers Merrie Olde England isn’t so merry. In fact, there are Nazi spies lurking around every single atmospheric, fog-shrouded corner of Fritz Lang’s London – including the very venerable villainy of the one and only John Carradine. Gaining the trust of a local lower-class lass (Joan Bennett, whose English accent leaves quite a bit to be desired, and makes you very thankful Walter Pidgeon doesn’t even try to pull one off), Thorndike continues to evade his would-be captors. But how long will he be able to remain in the shadows with such a persistent enemy on his trail? Ludwig Stössel, Frederick Worlock, and Holmes Herbert also star, with Herbert Evans delivering one of his many, many portrayals as a butler. Likewise, an uncredited Carl Ekberg has a cameo in one of his many, many portrayals as Hitler in this often-taut, always-delightful thriller from the creator of the Dr. Mabuse films.

Twilight Time presents Man Hunt to Blu-ray in a stellar 1080p transfer that is a remarkable improvement over the 2009 Standard Definition DVD from Fox. Looking even better than ever, this upgrade boasts a remarkable picture so clear that you can just barely make out the background objects in the fog during the Pidgeon and Bennett’s filmic farewell, and black levels are quite solid. Audio-wise, Twilight Time presents this one with a DTS-HD MA lossless English mono track, with a secondary aural option of the film’s isolated score by Alfred Newman presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Apart from that inclusion, the special features on the disc are identical to the earlier SD-DVD release: English (SDH) subtitles, an informative audio commentary by Patrick McGilligan, the featurette “Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt“, and a theatrical trailer without any captions or titles whatsoever – so it plays off as a weird collage of footage (some of which didn’t make the final cut) occasionally with dialogue. (This was the fault of Fox some five years ago, and they never bothered to correct it.)

Sadly, there is not audio commentary by Twilight Time for this particular title. This is no doubt attributable to the fact that Man Hunt was added to their August 2014 slate only months before its release date, and – believe it or not – writing and performing an audio commentary is not as easy task, especially when the goal is to educate your audience rather than entertain them (like in, say, the drunken group session with the cast of Cannibal! The Musical – as I said before, I have an eclectic collection!). But the lack of such a track here is nevertheless made up for by Twilight Time’s own Julie Kirgo, who delivers unto us yet another fine essay for a title that not only makes you truly wonder if Thorndike would have set up a different pattern and changed the world had he placed a bullet in his chamber the first time ’round, but which is also a highly recommended upgrade of a highly recommended film to boot.

Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt is limited to just 3,000 pressings from Twilight Time.

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Luigi Bastardo

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