Saturday, August 15, 2015

Man Hunt/Rogue Male

If someone pontificates the blanket statement "there's never been a remake of a film better than the original," here's a rebuttal (besides, say, True Grit) you can have at the ready:

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941) Dudley Nichols' adaptation of the 1939 Geoffrey Household novel that begins with a sure-fire set-up: a big game hunter, Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), travels to Berchtesgaden to shoot Adolf Hitler right in the Berghof with a long-range rifle. He "takes the shot," but then, on second thought loads a bullet into the chamber...too late. He's discovered, taken prisoner and tortured for information by Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, at his most impenetrably cold). The Major wants the Captain to admit that his intent was to kill Der Fuhrer (something he understands being an avid sportsman himself) and sign a confession to that effect, saying that he was doing it for the British government.  Thorndike refuses, is beaten, then dumped over a cliff to make his death appear an accident.

But Thorndike survives, and makes his way back to England, barely ahead of his Nazi pursuers. With the aid of a cockney lass, Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), he manages to elude his pursuers, going, literally, underground by living in a makeshift cave and living off the land. But a cave has one drawback—it only has one exit, and this proves to be a weakness in Thorndike's cat-and-mouse with the Nazis.

It's a corker of a story, told with the visual paranoia that Lang excelled at. It's one long chase that finally goes elementally one-on-one. Where Nichols diverges from Household (aside from actually naming the dictator the author's anonymous hunter aims for, no doubt with the approval of the director, a German exile*) is in a neat insertion of a "woman's part," through the extended English city section, which becomes a deus ex machina for the final confrontations. "Jerry Stokes" was a Nichols creation, it being thought that giving Thorndike a visible love interest for the audience to identify with, would more humanize Thorndike and his quest.  "Jerry" has her origins in the book, but was only suggested. Nichols, Lang, and Bennett made flesh what Household only used as a back-story.   

Rogue Male (Clive Donner, 1976) BBC film of the Household novel that keeps the original more in its sights. Where Man Hunt is urban, has a love interest, and is quite light-hearted at times, Rogue Male is more to the point, quite brutal (the shots of Peter O'Toole's Thordyke after being beaten to a bloody pulp are tough to watch) and extends the cave scenes, making them much more a part of the story (Pidgeon spends barely 20 minutes in the cave in Man Hunt) as they are in the book.

But it is the character of Thorndyke where the two most diverge—Pidgeon's captain does what he does to survive. That's certainly true of O'Toole's characterization (it has to be!), but one also gets the sense that this hunter prefers life in a cave to one in the aristocracy. Any hint of romance is purely prologue, giving an ethereal quality to the unnamed woman, that O'Toole merely suggests with a melancholy cast of his eyes. Written with 20/20 hindsight by Frederic Raphael, the film is far more political than either the book or first film could ever hope to be at the time they were written, given the historical perspective nearly forty years can bring. Smart, intelligent, unwavering, the BBC version of Household's novel is an adaptation worthy of the anonymous Hunter.

The Lang version is more stylish and romantic, but Donner's TV-version has the novel down cold. O'Toole once stated that it is the favorite of all films.


* This supposedly worried 20th Century Fox exec Darryl F. Zanuck, as well as The Breen Office, as America, at the time, was neutral in the European War, not entering the fray until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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