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Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941) represented a major breakthrough in Joan Bennett's already extensive film career--the role of Jerry, a Cockney prostitute, allowed her to demonstrate a greater range than ever before. It also marked the start of her mutually beneficial collaboration with Fritz Lang. The script was adapted by Dudley Nichols from Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male, about a big game hunter who stalks Hitler and is captured and tortured by the Gestapo, only to escape to England and become hunted himself by German spies. Household's book was published serially in the Atlantic Monthly in 1939 and in hardcover the same year by Little, Brown. Charles Poole, the reviewer for the New York Times, wrote of Household's novel: "We haven't seen as exciting a man-hunt as this one in years. [...] He drives ahead tautly and precisely, piling suspense upon suspense with the ease of a master."
At first John Ford was slated to direct the picture, but he turned it down and eventually settled on How Green Was My Valley (1941). Kenneth Macgowan, who admired Lang's work, convinced Darryl Zanuck to give the picture to him instead. Up to that point, Zanuck had only given Lang two Westerns to direct at Fox: The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). While Lang had a sincere interest in the genre and had traveled extensively in the West, the two films were nonetheless routine studio assignments and didn't mesh with Lang's real directorial strengths in the way that Man Hunt arguably did, with its focus on espionage and its theme of relentless pursuit.
The role of "Jerry" was initially intended for Ida Lupino and later Gene Tierney; Anne Baxter and Greer Garson were also under consideration. However, Lang already knew Joan Bennett since she shared the same agent--Sam Jaffe--and was the wife of Walter Wanger, who had produced Lang's You Only Live Once (1937). Bennett rehearsed her role extensively and received dialogue coaching from Queenie Leonard, the English music hall performer who specialized in Cockney roles in Hollywood. Bennett later recalled: "It was the only movie I ever made in which I knew the entire script, like a play, beforehand."
Before the film even launched into production, the Production Code Administration held the project under special scrutiny due to its content. In his memo to the studio dated March 4, 1941, Joseph Breen declared the script "unacceptable on two major counts": for its "excessive brutality and gruesomeness"--especially during its representation of Thorndike's torture by the Germans--and for the indications that "Jerry" was a prostitute. Breen pointed out that the script was full of such hints, among them the interior of her apartment, Lady Risborough's reaction to her visit, the use of the phrase "picked up," Jerry's frustration at Thorndike's refusal to share her bed, and her manner of dress. In a later memo, Breen clarified that her Tam o' Shanter, trench coat and "bag dangling at the end of her wrist" were "inescapable symbols designating prostitutes." In the finished film, the presence of a sewing machine in her apartment is supposed to imply that she is a seamstress instead. However, many of the other hints that Breen complained about remained to a certain extent, including the notorious Tam o' Shanter and trench coat.
Another point of contention was the film's uniformly negative portrayal of the Nazis. In a separate memo, Breen reminded the studio of the Production Code Administration's policy against "hate pictures," writing: "This story is unlike any story which has been submitted to us in recent years, in that in this script the Nazis are characterized as brutal and inhuman people, and the Englishman--or Englishmen--are the sympathetic characters." Breen further argued that it resembled the anti-German ("Hate the Hun") propaganda films from World War I and that a "great segment of public thought" would object to it as "inflammatory." The finished film does portray Thorndike's torture only indirectly and includes some relatively sympathetic Germans-in-exile such as the jewelry shop owner, but its representation of the Nazis remained mostly unchanged. Interestingly, when the film was screened for the British censorship board, their sole objection arose during the section set on the ship bound for England: the siren from the police launch sounded too much like an air raid warning.
Man Hunt was mostly well received and helped revive Lang's career in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter described it as "the most amazing job of sustained excitement in recent memory" and singled out Joan Bennett's performance for praise, including her handling of the Cockney accent. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times noted the "unremitting intensity" of Lang's direction and admired the lead actors, but criticized Dudley Nichols' script for having too many plot holes. The reviewer in Variety, on the other hand, complained that Bennett's "attempts at affected Cockney accents are always synthetic" and felt that the film "loses its grip at the half-way mark to wind up as [a] decidedly overfootaged meller and not too credulous." Today, Man Hunt stands out as a taut Langian thriller enlivened by the warmth, humor and pathos of Joan Bennett's performance.
Producers: Darryl F. Zanuck, Kenneth Macgowan and Len Hammond
Director: Fritz Lang
Script: Dudley Nichols with contributions by Lamar Trotti
Based on the novel "Rogue Male" by Geoffrey HouseholdDirector of Photography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Richard Day and Wiard B. Ihnen
Film Editor: Allen McNeil
Costumes: Travis Banton
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Captain Alan Thorndike), Joan Bennett (Jenny Stokes), George Sanders (Major Quive-Smith), John Carradine (Mr. Jones), Roddy McDowall (Vaner), Ludwig Stossel (Doctor), Heather Thatcher (Lady Risborough), Frederick Worlock (Lord Risborough), Roger Imhof (Captain Jensen).
BW-103m. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen
"Man Hunt." [Film review.] Hollywood Reporter. June 11, 1941.
"Man Hunt." [Film review.] Variety. June 11, 1941.
Crowther, Bosley. "Man Hunt." [Film review.] New York Times. June 14, 1941.
Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. New York: Praeger, 1967.
History of the Cinema: selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006.
Kellow, Brian. The Bennetts: an Acting Family. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: the Nature of the Beast. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Poole, Charles. "Books of the Times." [Book review of Rogue Male] New York Times. August 25, 1939.