Damn, Fritz Lang was good; this WWII-era thriller about a British aristocrat being hunted by the S.S. is nail-biting, sardonic, gorgeously captured, and poignantly anti-fascism. Picture this for an opening. In 1939, a hunter strolls through the woods with a scoped rifle and lands upon a target. He posts up on a hilltop, lines up his shot, sets his sights, and we peer through his viewer to see his target: and it’s Adolf fucking Hitler. The hunter fires; the chamber’s empty, and he laughs to himself, mockingly saluting the Fuhrer. Then he puts a live round in his rifle, unaware of the approaching Nazi soldier nearby. He’s stopped at the last second, and misses his shot. A Nazi commandant interviews him cordially, due to the man’s world-renowned status as a legendary hunter. The hunter, Thorndike, admits that he was hunting Hitler, but not to assassinate him, but rather as a “sporting stalk,” just to see if he could do it, and to challenge himself after all other game became far too easy. The commandant doesn’t believe him, and waves a confession in Thorndike’s face to sign, which, due to Thorndike’s high standing in the aristocracy, would likely instigate a justified war against England. Thorndike refuses, and the commandant attempts to kill him and make it look like an accident, but he escapes, and makes his way to London. The commandant, enraged, tasks a traitorous, but clever Englishman to follow Thorndike back to England, capture him live, and elicit a confession from him to turn the tide of the tension between the two countries in Germany’s favor.
I have to admit, about halfway through the opening scene, when it is revealed that Thorndike’s hunting target is Hitler, I was thoroughly on board with both the film and the hero. I mean I knew he’d miss; this ain’t Inglourious Basterds-style revisionist history, after all, and it was made smack-dab in the middle of the war. But the idea of a hunter independently getting a clear shot at ol’ Adolf at the outset of the war worked phenomenally as an entry point for this story, and I immediately liked the protagonist. That empathy didn’t end there; as Thorndike, Walter Pidgeon is all hands-in-pockets, unflappably cool, and when he breaks down his disaffected surface in the final reel, it is truly heartbreaking and rousing. That scene is indicative of the heavily patriotic and anti-Nazi tone of the film, made all the more powerful by the direction by Fritz Lang, who, when offered to head up the German film industry in ’33, told Goebbels to go fuck himself and, as Aldo Raine put it, “got out while the gettin’ was good”. Like the similar (and wonderful) Midnight Train To Munich, the vibe of this film is very much pro-Allies, using the story to elicit gung-ho feelings of “Fuck you, Hitler!”, but like that film, the time and setting makes for a very taut, high-stakes thriller. As Thorndike skulks through London, Lang uses his masterful German expressionist leanings to bathe the city in shadow, making every nook and cranny of the frame a potential threat. While this is a thrilling World War II nail-biter, and not, let’s say, M, Lang still manages to inject the film with his ahead-of-his-time compositions, performances, and evocations of constant paranoia.
Even Thorndike’s love interest, a cockney bumpkin who finds him instantly (and improbably) irresistible, is somewhat suspicious and oddly lucky in her assistance to him. Joan Bennet’s performance is stylized, and her accent is a little wonky, but she is touchingly open-faced, and succeeds in representing a good-natured, but trivialized lower-class that had just as much at stake (if not more) in the war as the aristocracy. There is a large chunk in the middle of the film where the tension somewhat deflates and the focus rests more on their relationship than Thorndike eluding capture, but that finally pays off in the surprisingly cynical, but rabble-rousing climax. The two villains, the commandant and his hired-gun English tracker, are excellently depicted and visually terrifying. The Nazi is a monocle-wearing gentleman who, nonetheless, is dead-set on inciting an international incident that will claim millions of lives (think the Evil Twin of Erich Von Stroheim in Grande Illusion). The Brit, eerily played by John Carradine, is almost hilariously gothic looking, pasty-thin, long-faced, dressed in black, and bearing an umbrella which, as we learn, is merely a sheath for a very large knife. Roddy MacDowell (as a child) has a minor part as a young steward, and he scores both some tasty laughs, as well as some heart-stopping tension when interrogated by the evil Brit. Even Thorndike’s douchey aristocrat brother comes off as more sympathetic and human than he could’ve been, and his uptight wife has a hilarious scene trying to decipher Bennet’s cockney slang. They all fit snugly into this pre-war world that Lang depicts, right before all of England stood as one against the hubris and atrocities of the 20th century most infamous world leader, when only some had the knowledge and passion to actually take a stand against the psycho meth-head sommbitch.
Highly Recommended to fans of WWII thrillers or of Fritz Lang. I really, REALLY need to see Metropolis; I’ve seen a handful of Lang’s later films (Scarlet Street, M, The Big Heat, and now this) and I’ve loved all of them, making me think that the film of his that is in countless critics’ lists and articles may be fairly urgent to see.