Man Hunt

September 3, 2011 § 11 Comments

Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt (based on a novel with just as unintentionally homoerotic a title, Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, which I haven’t read) is structured around an interesting conceit: just before WWII, a thrillseeking British aristocrat (Alan Thorndike, played by the Canadian Walter Pigeon) is caught aiming a rifle at Hitler in what he claims was a “sport stalking,” basically throwing the fish back in. He’s then constantly pursued for the rest of the movie by the Gestapo in order to get him to sign a confession that he both a) really intended to kill Hitler and b) did it with the full knowledge of the British government, creating a pretext for war. Why Germany would want to go to war with Britain in 1938 is anyone’s guess, but that’s beside the point. By the end of the film, Gestapo agent Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, the great English Nazi), before getting an arrow in the neck, has convinced Thorndike that he unconsciously desired Hitler’s death but fails to get him to subordinate that desire to a nation state. Since we’ve seen Thorndike’s own aristo father imply that England would gladly give him up for dead to appease the Führer, it’s easy to understand why.

But the resistance to nationalism goes deeper. Thorndike is an individualist, a free spirit, able to treat his social class — that most typically English of classes, landed gentry — as merely a source of income. I don’t know the circumstances behind the casting choices, but it’s entirely fitting that the lead actor be a Canadian with no interest in sounding English, the love interest, a working-class Londoner, played by an American (Joan Bennett — hearing Jersey attempt Cockney is quite an experience), and the heavy an Englishman with fluent German. Having heard Sanders do a decent enough German accent in other films, I can only assume that Lang told him to drop it for this role, and anyway the incongruities are backed up by the plot: the name Quive-Smith is an odd hybrid that doesn’t seem to have much to do with German, he is suspiciously described at one point as “too perfectly English”; Thorndike’s accent is (weakly) explained by the amount of time he spends “at his house in Canada,” etc. All of which adds an extra layer of irony to the following bit of dialogue between them. I’ll include the whole scene as it’s the only one I could find on YouTube; the part I transcribed occurs around 4:30:

Quive-Smith: “Your conversation fascinates me, Thorndike. But this softness in your nature with regard to the ultimate purpose of firearms betrays the weakness, the decadence, not only of yourself but of your entire race. Yes, you’re symbolic of the English race.

Thorndike: “I’m beginning to think that you’re symbolic of yours!”

The film’s amusing habit of highlighting the distance between the actors, the characters, and the national cultures they’re supposed to represent foregrounds the instability of any connection between signifier and state-fiction, and the absurdity of insisting on them. That this absurdity is linked to war is the film’s moral argument. Which can be a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that its one utopian projection is inextricable from violence. We’re told that Thorndike is an apolitical pacifist. This claim is undercut early on — after squeezing an empty trigger on Hitler, we see him put a bullet into the chamber and aim the rifle again before he’s caught — but it is not exactly refuted. In the end he confesses to wanting to carry out the assassination, not for England but for “humanity,” a concept that, like his pacifism, he derives from his enlarged sense of self, his abhorrence of anyone else trying to “play God.” If only he had figured this out straightaway, he could have saved the world. And indeed the film ends with him joining the military, solely in order to go rogue as soon as he’s behind enemy lines and “fulfill his destiny” by killing Hitler all by himself.

To get any idea of how this might have played at the time of the film’s release, months before the U.S. entered the war, we’d have to imagine Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming propaganda movie about killing Bin Laden coming out a few months after 9/11. But that wouldn’t be right either, because Man Hunt was an American studio film, adapted from an English novel published before the war, directed by a Austrian Jewish refugee, set in England from just before the invasion of Poland to just after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and released shortly thereafter. It was enough to cause problems with American censors who saw it as anti-German — the US was of course still neutral. Man Hunt is the only anti-nationalist war propaganda movie I can think of without lasers, dragons, or zombies, made in the name of an international alliance that had not yet become the Allies (so the Bigelow analogy would only work if the movie was made in China, set in New York, and directed by an Arab Jew). In Thorndike, frontier toughness (he’s a hunter who kills Quive-Smith with a makeshift bow and arrow), gentlemanly charm, and pacifistic morality come together under the banner of upright Anglo-American individualism, to create a fantasy that 60 years later has all but become NATO foreign policy. Post-Bin Laden, we’re living in Man Hunt‘s utopia.

But what if we resist the interpretation the film guides us toward, that of the lone badass driven by universal principles to stop wars, indifferent to the state that underwrites his adventures? To seize instead on that initial, almost anarchistic moment where Thornhill takes aim, shoots nothing, and packs up to go home, and read it against the teleology of the plot and his ‘unconscious’ utopian motives? It would be the nihilistic choice, true, the abandonment of all thought of a better world, but it would embrace everything great about the movie: its lightness, its sense of playful irony, the analogy it draws between serious ethical principles and the rules of a game — and a different kind of power, power as the mockery of power, seriousness as the mockery of seriousness.

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§ 11 Responses to Man Hunt

  • W.Kasper says:

    Wouldn’t a more apt analogy be made with anti-communist movies made shortly before US involvement in Indo-China? Quite a few (largely forgotten) thrillers from the early 60s where international communism acts as the Maguffin (be they south east Asians or Cubans under the spell/orders of Moscow – never Africa, though). Or indeed westerns that are kinda allegorical about borderless ‘police actions’ (Magnificent Seven comes to mind, and a few years later The Professionals and Peckinpah where it gets more violently pathological and ‘amoral’ – Major Dundee & Wild Bunch. Dirty Dozen and other less-than-patriotic ‘outlaw’ WW2 movies relate to that trend too).

    Then there’s stuff like Sam Fuller or the Manchurian Candidate – so overloaded with commie Maguffinery it gets delirious.

  • traxus4420 says:

    i don’t quite follow on the cold war movies – what are the forgotten movies you’re talking about? i’ve only seen a few of the more popular cold war movies, a similar genre to WWII espionage (anti-totalitarian thrillers mostly consisting of white people, fought in the name of freedom) but they aren’t oriented around national trauma and the communist hydra can’t be assassinated. isn’t indeterminate allegiance the whole problem in the cold war film? i tried to point out the not-quite-explicit-enough-to-be-satirical pressure lang applies to all national identity. and sure there are lots of cowboy movie war allegories (lang made a few), just like the contemporary taste for allegory with “lasers, dragons, or zombies,” but this one is directly about ww2, the ‘good war’ to which all good wars refer.

    i mean no direct link between man hunt and the war on terror can really work for obvious reasons, but the military ideology of today — international teams of covert ops renegades assassinating for freedom without state intervention — seems more like the resurrection of this WW2 fantasy of killing hitler than a return to the cynical urbanity of cold war détente, even though no one believes in it.

  • W.Kasper says:

    Two that come to mind are Hitchcock’s Topaz and Torn Curtain. Especially Topaz, which treats the Cuban revolution kind of like a permanent crisis. But of course, Hitchcock movies are often about indertiminate loyalties. East Berlin-set thrillers were quite common in the JFK era, featuring upright US stars surrounded by dodgy Europeans (no doubt due to quotas etc). I’ve seen a few set in south east Asia – like romances ‘interrupted’ by communist sub-plots. However, like I said, most of ’em are forgotten – the kind of crap they’d throw on afternoon TV here – so I’d be stumped to come up with titles!

  • W.Kasper says:

    Forgot to mention that they seem to have the Cuban missile crisis hanging over them – but rarely stated explicitly in the dialogue etc.

  • W.Kasper says:

    I’ve always found geopolitical conflict being used as a mere ‘coitus interruptus’ plot device kinda fascinating too, but I guess I’m sidetracking now.

    • traxus4420 says:

      coitus interruptus – you mean like the quiet american? and soft-focus nookie is the framing device of torn curtain, right? and basically every james bond film? now i’m starting to think it’s a british thing. jason bourne is much too busy to have sex.

      also, according to internet rumor and wikipedia, rambo is one of the novel’s spiritual progeny. but anyway there is a big difference between commando assassins and gentleman spy/assassins, and man hunt struck me as suggesting a future for the former within the space of the latter, or rather the latter’s ultimate inadequacy and failure.

      also, random thought – can you think of any recent (preference is for ‘realistic’) spy movie where the evil mastermind is a nonwhite terrorist? like i remember everyone comparing 9/11 to a bond plot but it seems like the genius villains just keep getting whiter.

      • W.Kasper says:

        Yeah like Mission Impossible where they’re ultra-wasp (Phil Seymour Hoffman etc). But the more realistic tend to prefer ‘insider’ villains – usually played by British/Euro actors, academic types with megalomania. The amateur gentleman spy/detective/assassin has been unfashionable for some time now (Ritchie’s Sherlock being the novelty exception) unless you count Batman, but stuff like the Saint tends to flop. Since the 90s there’s been a big fixation on officially accredited ultra-efficiency. Patriotic activity in movies/TV is rarely voluntary – it’s always govt employees/assignments, especially since 9-11 (even more recent superhero movies).

        North by Northwest is basically nookie elaborately postponed (with the hero’s mother as an extra spanner in the works). That cut from Mt. Rushmore to the embrace on the train being the punchline. By UK, maybe it’s the influence of the 39 Steps (at least the Hitchcock movie) and a lot of Graham Greene – sexual frustration/jealousy being such a recurring aspect of his male leads. Come to think of it, it’s strange that Lang didn’t adapt Greene (or at least not to my knowledge).

  • Chuckie K says:

    I can only add a pointless personal footnote. I bought and read Rogue Male when I might have been 11 years old. Through the Scholastic Book club. At that time the club seems to have retailed a lot of British WWII paperbacks.

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