Country: United States
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, Joan Bennett, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Ludwig Stössel, Heather Thatcher, Frederick Worlock, Holmes Herbert
Music: Alfred Newman
Based on the novel ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household
Geoffrey Household’s book, Rogue Male, caused a sensation upon release. The sheer simple idea that a man could go out and hunt down a world leader was somewhat shocking – even if that leader was Adolph Hitler. Remember that England and the United States had not entered the war when the book was written. Hitler wasn’t portrayed as quite the villain that history has proven him to be.
It is not so surprising then that Hollywood should snap up the film rights to Rogue Male. Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights, and although the book was a sensational talking point, it was a film that would be very hard to make due to the ‘Neutrality Act’, which forbade movie productions taking a side in the war. Of course, by this time, England was at war with Germany, and any overt pro-England message within the film had to be muted quite substantially.
Let’s face it, if you were intending to abide by the Neutrality Act, then Rogue Male is not the best material for an adaptation – essentially the story of an English aristocrat who attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer, who then alludes and outwits the best of Germany’s spies and agents.
Many of Hollywood’s higher profile directors, such as John Ford were approached to direct the film, but eventually the film fell in to the lap of Fritz Lang. Lang had just fled from Nazi Germany to the United States and still had not re-established himself as a major director.
The story about Lang is a quite complicated one, and many scholars seem to debate the veracity of the story, but it seems Lang, whose Grandmother was Jewish was approached by Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebels to be Germany’s head of film-making. Lang, although he didn’t want the job as he was anti-Nazi, accepted the position, and over the next six months formulated his plan to escape to the United States (there are versions of the story which suggest he left the very next day).
Now in America, Manhunt was to be Lang’s opportunity to prove that he was not a Nazi, which he did rather effectively if not so subtly. The film did not escape the view of the moral and political guardians at the time, and the film-makers were requested to appear at a hearing to defend their apparent defiance of the Neutrality Act. However, the attack on Pearl Harbour, and America’s entry into the war, led to the hearing being cancelled.
Lang would go onto to direct the similarly themed Ministry of Fear (1944) based on Graham Greene’s novel. In fact if you look back over the whole body of Lang’s work, there is a definite theme of espionage, political intrigue and corruption. Whether it be the shady world of Dr. Mabuse, the organised vigilantism of M, or even to the mechanised Maria in Metropolis, who evokes comparison with Mata Hari in an erotic cabaret act that she performs. Lang seemed to have a thing for the ‘hidden’ and ‘secret’ elements of society.
In Manhunt, Household’s un-named protagonist is given a name and it’s Alan Thorndike, played by Walter Pidgeon. The film opens pretty much the same as the book, with Thorndike stalking Adolph Hitler, and at the last second before he could have pulled the trigger – we never no for a fact if he would – he is pounced upon by a German guard doing his rounds.
Captured, Thorndike is brought before German officer, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) for interrogation. Quive-Smith has Thorndike worked over until his identity can be verified. However, when it is revealed that Thorndike is exactly who he claims to be – and that just happens to be an aristocrat with connections in the British government – this presents another problem for the Nazis.
Due to Thorndike’s status – and the fact that they are not at war with England – they cannot very well kill him. It would cause an outrage. However, they cannot allow him to go free. If the story of an assassination attempt on the Fuhrer, and an almost successful attempt at that, was to reach the press and the people, then it would be a major embarrassment for the Nazi regime. The solution is to fake an accident. Throndike is pushed over the edge of a cliff. But of course, somehow he manages to survive and eventually, after stowing away on board a ship, with the help of the cabin boy, Vaner (an incredibly young Roddy McDowell), he makes it back home to England.
Thorndike’s troubles don’t end there. His story, if it were to leak out, still presents a danger to the Nazis, so they engage all their agents in England to track him down. Along the way, Thorndike enlists the aid of a young girl, Jerri (Joan Bennett) who hides him. Jerri, as a romantic subplot, almost seems shoehorned into the story – and at times comes close of pushing the story into ‘screwball farce’ territory – but thankfully it doesn’t quite cross that line. Allegedly, in the script, Jerri was to be a prostitute, which sort of rings true, with the way the other characters interact with her. However, in the film, she claims to be a seamstress.
The key difference between Manhunt the film, and Rogue Male the novel, is in the handling of the love interest in the story. In Rogue Male, it’s almost half way through the story before there is even a mention of the woman – and then it is not until almost the end of the story that we find find out who she is and what she meant to the protagonist. In fact we find out that she was the reason for the hero’s attempt on Hitler’s life. In Manhunt, however, it has been changed quite significantly. Thorndike did not go to Germany to avenge a loved one, but as the conceit of the original story suggests, to simply see if it is possible to hunt and stalk Hitler – a ‘sporting stalk’. Later in the movie, Thorndike confesses that he did actually intend to shoot and kill Hitler – although the film in its opening sequence is quite playful in the notion, and suggest that the stalk is indeed just for fun.
But back to the girl. In Manhunt, the love interest is Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett). In London, as Thorndike attempt to elude the spies on his trail, seeking refuge, he unwittingly draws Jerry into the web of danger. As the scenario plays out, a relationship develops between the two. It isn’t a sexual relationship. Thorndike is more like a father figure or an older brother – and during the film, director Fritz Lang, never allows the relationship to develop into being a piece of sentimental schmaltz. None-the-less, once the relationship is established, and despite the fact that they don’t even share a kiss, it is very clear that the couple have feelings for each other.
The only real attempt to soften the story (apart from showing the brutalities of Thorndike’s torture at the hands of the Nasis) is the casting of George Sanders as Major Quive-Smith. Sanders is so quintessentially English and charming, that despite being a thoroughly despicable and reprehensible character, that he falls just a fraction short of being likable.
Sanders, time and time again, has proved that he is adept at playing suave and sophisticated characters, such as The Saint and The Falcon. In Manhunt, he retains his veneer of sophistication, but stills lays down quite a cool line in menace – admittedly aided by some stunning cinematography and lighting.
Manhunt, for the sake of simplicity, chooses to roll of Thorndike’s torturer and the hunter on his tail, into one character, that being Quive-Smith. The earlier scenes, allow Quive-Smith to be a much more rounded character in the film, than in the book. In the book, he comes off little more than a mercenary called in at the end to tie up the loose ends. By placing Quive-Smith at the forefront of the story, the similarity between the men – both big game hunters – can be played out further. And also, Quive-Smith’s stake in the story is fleshed out. He wants to capture Thorndike because he escaped from right under his nose. The political ramifications could and would be his undoing.
Towards the end, as Major Quive-Smith has Thorndike trapped in his cave, the Major reveals that he has killed Jerry – or at least had her killed on his orders. This has happened off screen of course, but it is enough to turn Thorndike into a defiant warrior. He is no longer a man, who simply wishes to fade into the shadows, with the possibility of later, beginning a new life. Instead he becomes proactive in MacGuyvering an escape option. And then once he has escaped and ensured his vengeance against Quive-Smith, Thorndike feels compelled to join the war effort. By this time, in the film, England has gone to war with Germany.
So in the last few frames, the film becomes a propaganda piece. And generally, while this does not detract from the story at all, it changes the basic premise. While Rogue Male may be considered a warning about the potential for horror that a Nazi regime could bring to Europe, Manhunt is a call to arms.
Don’t get me wrong, Manhunt is still a very good film, and it is a fine adaptation of Household’s novel, but it is sort of like comparing a Big Mac to a Whopper – they both have a lot of meat, but they taste very different!
For a second opinion, read Tanner’s review at the Double-O-Section.