Man Hunt is the first of a string of four bold anti-Nazi films – along with Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak and Dagger (1946) – that Fritz Lang made between 1941 and 1946. It is also the last film he completed at Twentieth Century-Fox – he was subsequently contracted to make both Confirm or Deny (Archie Mayo, 1941) and Moontide (Archie Mayo, 1942), but showed little affection for either project. Lang’s tenure at Fox between 1940 and 1942 represents a brief moment of productive but indentured labour in Hollywood before the director moved across studios and largely into more independent modes of production. After two somewhat anomalous though increasingly enjoyable westerns, The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941), made back-to-back and in colour, Lang turned to a subject, milieu and audio-visual style much closer to his earlier German work. A mode, form and sensibility that would go on to mark many of his subsequent American films. Initially designed as a project for John Ford, it’s hard to see this as a good match (though perhaps a little more so when seen in the light of Ford’s roughly contemporaneous The Long Voyage Home [1940] and the surroundings literary adaptations completed during this phase of his career). Despite only coming to the project just before production started, Man Hunt feels like prime Lang material. Taking over this property also proved fortuitous for Lang, as it brought him together with Ford’s regular screenwriter, Dudley Nichols. He would later write what is probably Lang’s most highly regarded and fondly remembered American film, the extraordinary noir, Scarlet Street (1945). Man Hunt is also atmospherically shot by Arthur Miller, who would go on to win an Oscar for his next assignment, Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), early the next year.

Although it represents a particularly potent, propagandistic critique of the Nazi mindset – represented in both character and setting – its minimalist design, almost comic book-style groupings of characters, moodily sketched-in settings, and immersion in a universe of spies barely distinct from that of organised crime, harks back to the bold, paranoid, claustrophobic, geometric worlds of Spione (1928), M (1931), and Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (1933). Although there are moments that are typically Langian in earlier American films like Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) – featuring characters trapped by the machinery of fate – it can be argued that Man Hunt represents the director’s return to a genuinely identifiable and familiar social, pictorial and cultural milieu. Man Hunt is marked by an extraordinary sense of economy – other than in a couple of its rather windy dialogue scenes between German and English characters that try too hard to press home a point – a precise rhythm and pace, and an austere sympathy for its clinically precise, hemmed-in, suggestive, almost brutal mise-en-scène. Like many of the best Lang films, it feels illustrated rather than truly photographic, suggested rather than directly shown, a bold series of moody sketches brought to some kind of life.

Man Hunt is based on a speculative novel, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, published in 1939, initially in serial form in Atlantic Monthly. Household’s celebrated thriller imagines the aftermath of a “sporting stalk” by a British aristocrat in the surroundings of what, in the film, becomes Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden at some time in the weeks leading up to the Second World War (it was published in May, four months before the war’s outbreak). The novel details the journey of its protagonist (unnamed in the novel; Captain Alan Thorndike in Nichols’ adaptation) from somewhere in Continental Europe to London to the wilds of Dorset, describing, in a very precise manner, the devolution of its central character from the cloak of civilisation to the animalistic needs of bare survival. Household carefully documents the physical difficulties and daily resilience of his central character, while Lang is more concerned with the patterns and grids of surveillance and control that track his every move. While there are lengthy passages of partial respite in the novel, Lang’s film presents little ornamentation. Household’s novel grants us a significant insight into the psychology of its protagonist – the book we read is a version of the journal he writes while hiding out in a burrow in Dorset – while Lang presents a more objective, fatalistic, telescopic viewpoint. Although Thorndike needs to jettison his ingrained British beliefs in the “sporting chance” and the importance of playing by the rules of the game – seen as signs of a pathetic decadence by his nemesis, German Major Quive-Smith (wonderfully played as “too English” by George Sanders) – his necessary transition from sporting hunter to assassin is telegraphed in the film’s very first moments. Lang’s audacious, brilliantly staged opening sequence takes us into a Wagnerian German forest – though almost completely staged within a Hollywood studio – as Thorndike trains his sights on Hitler before being distracted by a falling leaf and then wrestled and captured by a German guard. There is significant distance between this opening in mid-1941 (when Man Hunt was released in the US) and the novel’s more speculative, though still urgent gambit. Rogue Male never identifies who the foreign leader and government are – though I imagine it wasn’t much in doubt – while Lang’s film acts as a “call to arms”. It must remembered that Man Hunt was made by an expatriate, exiled German filmmaker in the months leading up to the United States’ entry into the war. Unsurprisingly, the film’s stridently pro-British sentiments and murderous sense of “wish-fulfillment” were heavily criticised by the more isolationist voices holding court at the time.

As Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage have argued, “What seems to fascinate Lang in Man Hunt is not the moral issue but the staggering disproportion between a simple physical action and its possible consequences, the narrow margin between doing and not doing, and the permanent possibility for the individual to take one course of action or the opposite”1. The film briefly speculates about what might have happened if Thorndike had successfully pulled the trigger, but fixates on the outcomes that flow from his actions as well as their ultimate implications. While Household’s novel is long on description, Man Hunt moves relentlessly from scene to scene, location to location, it’s modes of “punctuation” and shifts of location merely functional or transactional rather than geographically or topographically precise. In many shots, there seems to be little that truly exist beyond the frame. As Coursodon and Sauvage also claim, Lang wasn’t “very strong on verisimilitude”, his films “draw[ing] much of their strength from their calculated disregard of it”2. I’d argue this is less a matter of a lack of verisimilitude than an emphasis on what might be called the essential. This is a partly abstract approach that becomes increasingly characteristic of Lang’s Hollywood work, reaching its apotheosis in a film like Human Desire (1954). In Man Hunt, so many moments seem enclosed or crowded by an encroaching bank of fog, a copse of trees, criss-crossing branches and leaves or the centripetal lines, circles and shapes that define the centripetal city. Its narrative telescopes to a point where all that is left for Thorndike to do at the plot’s conclusion is to return to Germany – the film showing the outbreak of war and what has followed in a very blunt montage that precedes this moment – and (hopefully) complete his task.

But there is also a romantic dimension to Man Hunt that is missing in Household’s novel. One of the film’s most noted aspects is the performance of Joan Bennett as Jerry Stokes. Although quite a bit has been made of the film’s knowing response to the Hays Office’s requests to downplay suggestions of her dubious profession – a sewing machine carefully placed in her apartment alludes to her gainful employment; she later “acts” as a sex worker to protect Thorndike from the law – Bennett brings a wonderful combination of innocence and carnality to her role. The flesh-and-blood nature of her performance is an important factor in motivating Thorndike’s change from observer to participant. It is also central in encouraging the audience to fully sympathise with his desire for revenge. While the London of the film’s imagination is full of foggy streets, pearly queens and kings, stuffy upper-class relations, criss-crossing tube lines and stations – there is a wonderful, tense scene where Thorndike is tracked across the London Underground – the character of Jerry provides a point of audience identification and even “authenticity” that lays testament to Bennett’s careful work in “perfecting” her accent and concentrating on the fine details of her physical performance: “Fritz was terribly exacting and demanding and working with him was sometimes abrasive, but he commanded great respect, and I performed better under his direction than at any other time in my career”3. Lang’s characters can sometimes seem puppet-like, spectral, but Bennett, Roddy McDowall (in his first Hollywood role as the young cabin boy Vaner), and, to some degree, Pidgeon, transcend these limitations. This is necessary in a film that pits Nazism totalitarianism against English idiosyncrasy and variety.

Man Hunt is also parlays a particular obsession with objects and vision, from the sights of the rifle and the seeming point-of-view shots of the film’s opening to the hatpin whose purpose and meaning shifts from sentimental gift to lethal weapon and symbol of loss in its second half. Jerry’s choice of a simple arrow design for this pin speaks to her purity of heart as well as the clear potency of symbols circulating throughout the film. When Thorndike jumps from a plane flying over Germany in the film’s final moments the stark composition combines his stretched and stiff body with a rifle strapped to his torso. In this image, we return to a distillation of the film’s opening as well as the illustrative credits that combine drawings of a telescopic rifle and the shadow of leaves. There is a purity and simplicity of form here that illustrates Lang’s supreme gifts as a graphic artist. In many ways, with Man Hunt he returns “home”. 

Man Hunt (1941 USA 105 mins)

Prod Co: Twentieth Century-Fox Associate Prod: Kenneth Macgowan Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Dudley Nichols, based on the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household Phot: Arthur Miller Ed: Allen McNeil Art Dir: Richard Day, Wiard B. Ihnen Mus: Alfred Newman
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Ludwig Stössel, Heather Thatcher, Frederick Worlock


  1. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage, American Directors, Volume 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), p. 203.
  2. Coursodon and Sauvage, p. 203.
  3. Bennett quoted in Lotte H. Eisner, Fritz Lang (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986) , p. 209.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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