Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)


Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt makes for strangely abstracted viewing now: the (still startling) footage of Adolf Hitler in the opening minutes signaling a project urgently grounded in real-life atrocities, and yet yielding a rather hermetic subsequent narrative (the film overall carries a far less striking sense of threat than the more fantastic Mabuse works). For sure, this partly speaks to Lang's core project, to dramatize one man’s evolution from partial fatuousness to life-consuming commitment: at the start, Walter Pidgeon’s crack game hunter Thorndike has the Fuhrer in his sights, but doesn’t take the shot, subsequently straining to convince his German captors (and perhaps himself) that he only did it for the sport of finding out whether it would have been possible. The Germans (mainly represented by George Sanders and John Carradine!) plan to manipulate him for propaganda purposes, but he escapes and makes his way to London, crossing paths with working-class Jerry (Joan Bennett) who rapidly falls for him and becomes an indispensable collaborator. While Bennett’s exaggerated accent and mannerisms may seem like objectively awful acting, the difference between her and the frequently flippant Thorndike does fuel one of the film’s key contrasts: between a society that facilitates such intuitive bonding across class lines and another that (at least in this telling) knows only cold calculation (inadvertently aided by some upper-class British cluelessness). The film is propelled by a series of spatially-confined set-pieces – on a ship, (most memorably) in the London underground, in a cave where the only means of escape has been blocked off – giving expression to that broad theme of the compression and hounding of freedom and possibility. It’s nowhere near to being Lang’s best work, but certainly adds to the sense of his films – even more than for most great directors –as constituting individual chapters in a sobering overall vision.

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