Man Hunt (1941)

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.

Man Hunt (1941)

The Falcon Steps In

I do not know too much about the Falcon, (I have never seen a film from the series – there was one – TheFalcon in Danger – on late night television this week, but being the ‘technical incompetant’ that I am, I botched the recording) but before I sign off of this series of posts about The Saint, I thought it was worth a brief introduction to the character. A snippet from the, Classic Film Guide.

After playing Simon Templar aka The Saint five times in an earlier RKO studio series, George Sanders played the similarly suave detective Gay Laurence (Americanized to Lawrence) in the first Falcon films before giving way to his older brother Tom Conway in the aptly titled fourth feature The Falcon’s Brother (1942). Conway then played Tom Lawrence a total of nine more times through 1946 to complete the original series, which actually had three “poverty row” additions that featured John Calvert as Michael Waring in the late 1940’s. Based on a story by Michael Arlen, the original entry in this “new” series titled The Gay Falcon (1941) not only featured Sanders but also actress Wendy Barrie, who’d appeared opposite the actor in three of the Templar mysteries including (Sanders’s last) The Saint in Palm Springs (1941). The Falcon character was so similar to RKO’s earlier B movie detective that The Saint’s creator Leslie Charteris sued the studio.

Wikipedia (yes, I know it’s not reliable) elaborates that Leslie Charteris even had a shot at reprehensible scallywag, The Falcon in the book, The Saint Steps In.

Sanders appeared in the first three Falcon films, which followed the Saint pattern so closely that author Charteris sued RKO for plagiarism. Charteris pokes fun at The Falcon in his 1943 novel, The Saint Steps In, with a character making a metafictional reference to the Falcon being “a bargain-basement imitation” of The Saint.

Wikipedia further goes on to suggest that The Falcon was created because the rights to The Saint character were too expensive.

The Gay Falcon is the first in a series of films about a suave detective nicknamed The Falcon. The 1941 B film was intended by RKO Radio Pictures to introduce a replacement for The Saint, after RKO decided that renewing the film rights to the latter character would be too expensive. George Sanders was cast in the title role; he had played The Saint in the prior RKO series.

So I would suggest that The Falcon is possibly The Saint in everything but name, and after all, the RKO Saint films weren’t following Charteris’ stories too faithfully to begin with.

After taking over from Sanders, Conway appeared in nine Falcon films, who was then followed by John Calvert for the last three films.

The Falcon films are:

• The Gay Falcon (1941)
• A Date with the Falcon (1941)
• The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
• The Falcon’s Brother (1942)
• The Falcon Strikes Back (1943)
• The Falcon in Danger (1943)
• The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943)
• The Falcon Out West (1944)
• The Falcon in Mexico (1944)
• The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
• The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)
• The Falcon’s Alibi (1946)
• Devil’s Cargo (1948)
• Appointment with Murder (1948)
• Search for Danger (1949)

The Falcon Steps In

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)

Country: United States
Director: Jack Hively
Starring: George Sanders, Helene Whitney, Jonathan Hale, Bela Lugosi, Donald MacBride, John F. Hamilton, Thomas W. Ross, Elliot Sullivan
Musical Director: Roy Webb
Based on characters by Leslie Charteris

I am a sucker for the old serials from the thirties and forties, whether they are Bulldog Drummond, Mr Moto, Charlie Chan, Michael Shayne or The Saint, they just drag me in. Whereas some people just find them old and boring. Maybe I am wrong but I think a lot of these old programmers have more zip and spark than the comparable dross that is on television these days. This is especially true when you get an actor like George Sanders in the lead role. Sander’s exudes class, and that’s what makes a story such as this a joy to watch.

The film opens in Cairo, and a shady character, known only as ‘the partner’ delivers a coffin shaped crate to a shipping agent. Inside is the mummy of King Annanouk the third, and he is being sent by Simon Templar (George Sanders) to Professor Horatio T. Bitts (of the Keystone University) in Philadelphia, USA. It appears that the Saint had been promising to get the Professor a mummy for his research for years.

Later, in Philadelphia, the professor is delighted to receive the mummy, and soon after Templar pays a call. Unfortunately the Professor can’t chat, because he has a faculty meeting. That leaves Templar in the company of the Professor’s daughter, Anne, who is not to enthusiastic to have Templar as a house guest. She has heard the rumours about him being a thief and a bounder and simply doesn’t trust him. Templar takes his leave by a window and disappears into the night.

Meanwhile Philadelphia Chief of Detectives, John Bohlen (Donald MacBride) receives a visit from an old friend, Henry Fernack (Jonathan Hale), who just happens to be visiting the city on holidays. They are about to go out to dinner, when a call comes in about a dead body found in the Professor’s garden. Both men head off to investigate.

Next to the body, is the Saint’s calling card, and written on it is ‘Thus may all traitors die. S.T.’ As Fernack has knowledge of the Saint and his ways, he is asked to assist with the investigation and the apprehension of the Saint for murder.

Of course, Templar is not a murderer. Somebody is setting him up. I guess it’s not really a spoiler, as the title of the film is The Saint’s Double Trouble, but there is a underworld villain, referred to only as ‘The Boss’ who is a dead ringer for Simon Templar, and he also happens to be a part of an extensive diamond smuggling racket.

The Saint’s Double Trouble is the most complexly plotted of the Sander’s Saint series, and at the beginning as the story begins to play out, you’ll have to be patient, because all is not clear. Don’t worry; it will all make sense in the end. There’s some good plot twists here too. Another aspect of this film is that the famous Saint Theme (composed by Leslie Charteris) is put to good use too. All in all, The Saint’s Double Trouble is very enjoyable.

More George Sanders as The Saint
The Saint in London.
The Saint in Palm Springs.

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)