Monday, June 13, 2011


A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
The film opens on British hunter Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), as he finds himself in Germany — in an area presumed to be Berchtesgarten, the Bavarian retreat of Adolf Hitler — with an opportunity to rid the world of a monster and prevent the Second World War. Thorndike has the Fuehrer lined up in the sights of his precision rifle and, pulling the trigger, there is an audible click…no bullet in the chamber. Giving his would-be target a friendly wave, we’re left to ponder as to whether it was his intention to assassinate Hitler. He firmly believes it was a “sporting stalk,” but the audience notices that he’s had second thoughts when he takes a bullet from his jacket and loads the rifle for a second go. Of course, our friend does not succeed at this encore; he’s tackled by a German soldier and captured by the Gestapo.

In 1941, debate raged on in America as to whether or not the U.S. should get involved in World War II…but perhaps the most anti-interventionist faction was based in the country’s motion picture industry. Hollywood took special pains to sit on the fence because they were anxious to not jeopardize the lucrative take from the rentals generated from U.S. films worldwide. Occasionally there would be a picture released that dared to take an anti-isolationist stance — Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) is considered by many to have started the ball rolling, followed by such features as Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Seventy years ago on this date, a film was released to theaters that was directed by a man who had a little first-hand knowledge about the politics of Germany (having fled the country in 1934) and who no doubt identified with the protagonist of a film based on Rogue Male, a novel written by author Geoffrey Household shortly before war broke out in 1939. The director to whom I’m coyly referring is Fritz Lang…and the movie is his classic 1941 suspense thriller Man Hunt.

Captured by the Gestapo, Captain Thorndike is questioned by Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders)…who finds Thorndike’s “sporting stalk” defense to be a pile of manure, and tries to convince his prisoner to sign a confession that he attempted to assassinate the Fuehrer on behalf of the British government. Thorndike refuses and is worked over by goons in the Gestapo’s employ — but because the good captain is made of sterner stuff, Quive-Smith decides to silence him by arranging his death in a “hunting accident.” Thorndike escapes his captors and gradually makes his way aboard a British sailing vessel, where he is kept out of sight by a young cabin boy named Vaner (Roddy McDowall). Thorndike, you see, is not out of the jungle yet because also onboard is a sinister hired gun (John Carradine) who answers to “Mr. Jones” and is masquerading as Thorndike with the help of Thorndike’s passport.

Arriving on his home turf of London, Thorndike is convinced he’s safe and sound but, like many a protagonist in Lang’s films, he’s in a nightmare from which he can’t awaken. He’s being stalked by Jones and several other Nazi swine, and his request to his brother, Lord Gerald Risborough (Frederick Worlock), for assistance goes unheeded because Risborough doesn’t want to risk an international incident that could plunge Britain into war with Germany. (The fact that Thorndike no longer has a valid passport on him certainly doesn’t help matters either.) Thorndike’s only salvation is a young Cockney girl named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), who helps him get to his brother’s home the night he arrives in London and later hides him out in her flat when he’s hunted by the police — the gendarmes find the mangled body of Jones in the London Underground and, locating Thorndike’s credentials on the corpse, assume that it’s Thorndike who has been murdered.

Thorndike contacts his solicitor (Holmes Herbert) and arranges to get enough money to enable him to hide out from his pursuers and to make certain that Jerry is repaid for her kindness and assistance as well. He provides Jerry with the address at a post office in Lyme Regis to allow her to get in touch with him and let him know when the heat has died down. Thorndike’s trip to the Lyme Regis post office, however, allows Quive-Smith to learn of his hiding place…and institutes a final showdown between the two men from which Thorndike emerges as the victor. There follows a passage of time and having enlisted in the RAF once World War II is underway, Thorndike bails out of a bomber over Germany with hunting rifle in his hand…the implication being that he’ll be damned if he misses his intended target (Hitler) this time.

Serialized in Atlantic Monthly before being published in novel form in 1939, Gregory Household’s Rogue Male would soon become a best seller and later one of the classic thriller novels of all time. The book, having been written before World War II, never specifically states that the unnamed European dictator was the man mockingly nicknamed “Schickelgruber,” but the book-buying public wasn’t fooled for a second. Rogue Male was a perfect candidate for a movie adaptation despite its controversial (for the U.S.) pro-intervention stance and screenwriter Dudley Nichols (a longtime collaborator of director John Ford — in fact, Ford was originally assigned to direct Man Hunt) was assigned the task. The movie also would find its perfect director to handle the subject material in German émigré Fritz Lang.

Because Lang approached Man Hunt with not entirely clean hands — namely, his fervent anti-Nazism — the movie attracted the attention of the Hays Office, and was one of the first war films to do so. Hays head Joseph Breen objected to the fact that the film depicted all Germans as evil, and was no doubt instrumental in making sure that there were enough “nice” Germans in the movie to counteract this (the character of the jeweler, for instance). The censors also insisted that the director soft-pedal the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by Sanders’ Gestapo to get Pidgeon’s hero to confess — which actually worked in the movie’s favor, since the sequences were more effective with the torture implied as opposed to visually spelled out. As if Lang didn’t have enough trouble, the head of the studio producing Man Hunt, Darryl F. Zanuck, also was not too crazy about Fritz’s anti-Nazi enthusiasm and forbid the director to go anywhere near the editing room during the movie’s final stages. (Lang and assistant Gene Fowler, Jr. did an end run around Zanuck, however, and worked on the movie in secret.)

What makes Man Hunt both a classic Hollywood thriller and one of Lang’s best works is its pitch-perfect casting. Walter Pidgeon would establish himself onscreen as the epitome of British stiff-upper-lipness (though Pidgeon himself was Canadian) in films such as Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Miniver Story (1950), and the part of Captain Thorndike in this film is one of his best movie roles. He’s a very engaging hero and the audience is with him every step of the way — especially in the rousing final sequence where Thorndike parachutes out of the plane with rifle in hand and loaded for bear. Pidgeon is fine with the he-man heroics but what really makes this movie strong is the tender relationship his Thorndike enjoys with leading lady Joan Bennett, who plays the part of the plucky Jerry.

It’s not too hard for audiences to decipher that Jerry practices the world’s oldest profession (and I’m not referring to farming) despite the Hays Office’s insistence that a sewing machine take prominent space in her flat in an effort to convince moviegoers that she was doing freelance seamstress work. Jerry is more or less accosted by Thorndike when the two characters meet in the film (he puts his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming and cluing the thugs on his trail as to his whereabouts) and though she’s frightened and intimidated by him at first, she gradually develops an affection that quickly blossoms into infatuation and then love. Thorndike is a right guy because he doesn’t judge Jerry on her social station or background (unlike his sister-in-law when the two try to get help in the House of Risborough); he treats her with an commendable degree of kindness and respect. There’s a wonderful and subtle sequence set inside Jerry’s apartment the morning after their visit to Thorndike’s relatives where Jerry has ventured out and secured breakfast (fish and chips!) and Thorndike pulls a chair up to the table, insisting that Jerry sit down. The expression on her face is that of an indescribable reverence at his thoughtfulness; she then tells him: “You act like a gent but you ain’t…I mean…you really acts like a gent.”

Bennett is so luminescent and lovely in the part of Jerry that I often marvel at how she is so much different from the femme fatales she plays in later Lang films such as The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). (Joan is so appealing in the part that I’m even willing to overlook the fact that she has one of the most unconvincing Cockney accents in the history of the cinema.) Her Jerry has become so taken with Thorndike that she’s prepared to travel to the four ends of the earth with him — something Thorndike vetoes only because he fears for her safety, and not due to any social stigma. In fact, when he tells her that he’ll arrange for her to be financially compensated by his solicitor for helping him in his hour of need she gets upset because she’s concerned that Thorndike is going to treat her in the same manner as her other “gentlemen.” Instead, all she wants from him is what he promised her earlier in the film — she’s lost a pin that adorned her hat and he’s agreed to furnish her with a new one. He’s as good as his word in doing so, because as he informs her: “Every good soldier needs a crest for his cap.”

The brooch that Thorndike purchases for Jerry is a little chromium arrow — a trinket that will take on significance later in the film because in the climactic mano-a-mano between Thorndike and Quive-Smith, the major presents Jerry’s hat with the arrow attached to make his adversary aware Jerry has been disposed of, but the quick-thinking Thorndike, just when it appears that he’s up against it and at the mercy of the contemptible Quive-Smith, is able to fashion his lady love’s souvenir into something that brings about the Nazi’s downfall. Sanders, an actor whose picture you would find in the dictionary if you searching for a definition of “cad,” gives a performance as one of the silver screen’s most delectably villainous rat bastards, deftly mixing his patented brand of suavity with appropriate sinister menace.

The supporting performances in Man Hunt are equally worthy of praise, including Carradine as a ruthless killer (whose demise in the London subway is particularly memorable) and McDowall (in his American film debut) as the resourceful cabin boy who’s got Pidgeon’s back. McDowall would also re-team that same year for Fox’s How Green Was My Valley, exhibiting a similar surrogate-father-and-son relationship. Other familiar faces in Man Hunt include Ludwig Stossel, Heather Thatcher (as Lady Risborough — her interactions with Bennett’s Cockney gal are priceless), Egon Brecher, Roger Imhof and Frederick Vogeding. The music score is one of my favorites from any film — composed by Lionel Newman, it’s an enchanting melody that uses “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” as a continuing motif.

Fritz Lang’s dedicated moviemaking mission against the Nazi menace would resurface in three additional films in the wake of Man Hunt: Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — the last released after the end of World War II, of course, but using the final days of the war as background for its subject matter. But Man Hunt was the first and best, thanks to first-rate casting, direction and scripting…and not to mention the source material; author Household’s Rogue Male would see additional adaptations (including a critically acclaimed TV movie in 1976 starring Peter O’Toole) and a sequel, Rogue Justice, that sadly has not been adapted for either film or television to my knowledge. When the U.S. entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were not only prepared to fight in the theater of war but the ones at audiences’ local movie houses as well…and 70 years later, Man Hunt remains a textbook example of how Hollywood was committed to the fight.

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I have a very neurotic relationship with Fritz Lang's entire filmography (apart from "M" - that's a film I bow down to unequivocally).

There are things I like about Man Hunt and things I just can't get past - chief among them, Joan Bennett's accent. I'm otherwise a fan of Bennett's (and she otherwise did fabulous work for Lang), but it's not like she just slips up occasionally here. It's more like she spends an hour raping the English language with a chirpy smile. So, no matter how hard I tried, for a lot of the film's key sections, my disbelief was staunchly unsuspended.
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