AN English sportsman (Walter Pidgeon), dressed in the full gentleman-hunter uniform of corduroy jacket and puttees, moves silently through a dark Bavarian forest, a high-powered rifle in hand. He lies on the ground to line up his shot, and through his telescopic sight we see his target moving into the crosshairs: no less than Hitler, strutting on a balcony at his mountain retreat. Pidgeon squeezes the trigger, but no shot rings out; he is merely on a “sporting shoot,” to see if he can get within range of his difficult quarry, and his gun is empty.
The opening sequence of Fritz Lang’s “Man Hunt” is still powerful today; imagine how it must have struck the audience on June 13, 1941, when “Man Hunt” opened at the Roxy in Times Square. The United States was still officially a neutral country, reluctant to be drawn into the conflicts raging in Europe and Asia, and Pidgeon’s empty gun was, in a sense, ours as well. America had the power to intervene but not, for the moment, the will.
“Man Hunt,” based on the Geoffrey Household novel “Rogue Male,” was one of many interventionist films produced by the Hollywood studios before Pearl Harbor, but it may be the best of them: clean and concentrated, elegant and precise, pointed without being preachy. Much of its air of authority comes from Lang, who had been Germany’s leading filmmaker (“Metropolis,” “M”) before he left the country in 1934. Lang became a naturalized American citizen in 1939, the year in which the action of the film takes place, backdated to precede the invasion of Poland.
These are Nazis as observed by someone who knew them intimately. (Thea von Harbou, the wife Lang divorced and left behind, was a party member.) In fact the chief villain of “Man Hunt,” a Gestapo officer who calls himself Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), wears Lang’s trademark monocle.
Lang was also known for using his own hands for close-up shots, and the finger on the trigger of Pidgeon’s gun may well have been his own. The sequence continues as Pidgeon’s character, a British big-game hunter named Capt. Alan Thorndike, has second thoughts and reaches for a bullet to place in the chamber. But it is too late: before he can fire, a guard sees him and tackles him. Thorndike awakes in the custody of Quive-Smith, who threatens to torture him unless he falsely confesses to being an assassin sent by the British government. He escapes and, with the help of a plucky cabin boy (Roddy McDowall) aboard a Danish freighter, makes his way back to London, followed by Quive-Smith and his murderous flunkies.
“Man Hunt” was originally meant as a project for John Ford, and the screenplay is by Ford’s regular collaborator, Dudley Nichols. But Lang folds the film entirely within his own personality. All of the distinctive features of Lang’s universe are present: the Gestapo agents (led by a cadaverous figure out of an Expressionist film, played by John Carradine) have infiltrated all levels of British society, just like the criminal operatives of Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” (1922); key scenes take place in subterranean spaces (the London Underground, a cave in Dorset); the love interest is provided by a woman of easy virtue (Joan Bennett, in the first of four films with Lang, as a Cockney streetwalker who helps Thorndike escape).
As propaganda “Man Hunt” is a movie of undisguised practical aims. During a confrontation in Quive-Smith’s office the German contemptuously tells his captive, “You’re symbolic of the English race.” Thorndike answers, “I’m beginning to think that you’re symbolic of yours!” — one of the lines that apparently roused the fury of Hollywood’s self-censorship board, the Production Code Administration, which objected to the picture’s lack of “balance.” (The administration also insisted that a sewing machine be placed in Bennett’s apartment to suggest that this young woman of suspiciously independent means was in fact a seamstress.) As agitprop the film could not be more effective: during its climax Thorndike finds a way to continue his stalking under more official circumstances, and the audience yearns to go along with him.
And yet, seen again in this excellent restoration from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, “Man Hunt” has the timeless quality of a work of pure imagination. Each image contains what the German critic Frieda Grafe called “the hidden geometry” of Lang’s work: that mysterious tendency of shots to resolve themselves into intersecting planes (the banked floors that seem to be rising to meet lowered ceilings), the crisscrossing lines of force traced by streets and the angles of buildings, the circles and squares and triangles that emerge from the décor and seem to dominate the tiny human figures. One of the film’s most prominent characters is an inanimate object, a brooch in the shape of an arrow that passes from Pidgeon to Bennett to Sanders and back to Pidgeon again.
Lang’s films are often said to center on questions of fate and predetermination, as if his characters were locked within eternally returning patterns of action, cycles of revenge foremost among them (“Fury,” “Rancho Notorious,” “The Big Heat”). But this is a fate without supernatural origin: the only gods in Lang’s universe are the puny, self-proclaimed ones, like Dr. Mabuse, whose own destiny is to be brought down.
Perhaps the enduring fascination of Lang’s work lies in the way he evokes these powerful, impersonal forces without ever locating them in something as recognizable as religion or politics; they seem to inhabit the frame already, embodied in the unswerving line of his tracking shots and the giant fields of brightness and shadow created by his lighting effects. Like a less larcenous version of the Victorian ghost photographers, he knows how to take pictures of things that aren’t there. (Fox Home Video, $14.98, not rated.)
Da The New York Times, 17 maggio 2009