Until I had to review it here, I’d never had much interest in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941). Try as I may, I’ve never been able to get that enthused by most of Lang’s post-Fury (1936) American films. And this one had the added drawback of starring Walter Pidgeon, who gets my vote as the dullest leading man of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (That Pidgeon ever became popular absolutely mystifies me.) So I was quite surprised to find this film version of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male compelling viewing from beginning to about 30 seconds from the end. I guess I hadn’t reckoned on how well even the Hollywood-constrained Lang would respond to the story’s pulpy melodrama—and if there’s anything Lang responded to it was pulpy melodrama.
The story, set in the late 1930s, is built on the intriguing premise of a British big-game hunter, Captain Thorndike (Pidgeon), who—just as a matter of sport—manages to get himself within a few hundred yards of Berchtesgaden and lines no less a target in his high-powered rifle than Adolf Hitler. He even fires on him—with an empty chamber—and then decides to load the gun, but before we can find out if he really intends on ridding the world of the Führer, Thorndike is arrested. After being unceremoniously beaten to a pulp, Thorndike is turned over to the head of security, Quive-Smith (George Sanders at his most unctuous), who has a plan. He’ll spare Thorndike’s life and send him back to England—if Thorndike will sign a confession that the British government sent him there to assassinate Hitler. Since the two countries are at an uneasy peace, this will be a valuable weapon against the British.
Naturally, Thorndike refuses, and Quive-Smith is forced to stage an accident for him, but his plans go awry and through a series of improbable incidents, Thorndike escapes and makes his way back to England where he thinks his troubles will be over. No sooner is he on British soil than he finds himself being stalked by German agents. Few things could be more disconcerting than finding yourself on a deserted foggy street and having John Carradine heading for you on one side and Lucien Prival on the other. Even the stodgy, stoical Pidgeon is nonplussed.
What follows is a slick thriller with several highly atmospheric sequences and a touching portrayal by Joan Bennett as a Cockney girl of doubtful virtue, but a high sense of personal morality. It’s all largely nonsense of the kind that qualifies for the tag of a ripping yarn, but it’s entertaining and suspenseful nonsense with a wonderful showdown between Thorndike and Quive-Smith. In fact, it’s good enough that you occasionally forget what a stiff the leading man is. That the film descends into preposterous wish-fulfillment propaganda in its last few seconds shatters the mood a bit, but it doesn’t sink the movie.