An odd movie, but a pivotal one. Perhaps not one of Lang’s masterpieces, but certainly one that’s crucial to grapple with if you intend to understand his trajectory.
In 1939, Geoffrey Household publishes Rogue Male, a novel about an apolitical big game hunter who, weary of mere elephants and rhinoceroses, goes on a “sporting stalk” (i.e., hunting minus the killing) of the most dangerous animal of all: MAN. Sounds cheesy, yes. But the man Household’s protagonist chooses to dry fire on is Hitler. Not named as such, but it’s pretty obvious.
At the time of the novel’s publication, the USA was still bound by the Neutrality Acts, but Hollywood was (rightly, obviously) anxious about Hitler’s rise, and the novel was rushed into screenplay form. John Ford passed. Lang got the nod. Shooting started in early 1941, and the film was released three months later. (There’s German efficiency for you.) Keep in mind that at this point, Lang was not yet a Hollywood power, he was an obsessive and difficult immigrant. Far from being given a free hand, he was expected to adhere to certain conventions.
Unsurprisingly, given the complex historical and personal contexts, this film is a dizzying collection of disparate impulses. There is a thick strand of anti-Nazi propaganda, around which we find wrapped additional ribbons of romantic comedy, film noir, and, not least, psychological melodrama. It’s a message movie, a war movie, a spy movie, a film noir, a comedy, a romance. It’s preoccupied with plot and atmosphere by turns. There’s stuff about class and nationalism. There are sequences that ask you to consider whether the wilderness is more civilized than the city, and the city more savage than the wilderness. There are, as always in Lang, claustrophobic spaces. (Compare and contrast, for example, Spencer Tracy locked in a cell in a burning jail in Fury with Walter Pidgeon trapped in a cave in Man Hunt.) Long story short I could write a book on this one, but no one but me would want to read it, so instead:
The thing that will stick with me from this is its frame. The first sequence throws us, without context, into a scenario where we assume the protagonist is up to something very serious, but which turns out to be the height of frivolity. By the final sequence, the same man is moving into the same position, but this time with conviction and purpose. (Note that in the first minutes he crawls on his belly like an animal, and in the last he drops from he sky like a god.) This movie’s a lot of things, but for me, above all, it’s a historiographical bildungsroman. It’s about a character’s coming into historical consciousness. Think about that, and then think about the Viennese patrician buried in the Hollywood hills. That was one weird fucking century we had back there.
Featuring adolescent Roddy McDoyle as a plucky cabin boy.