Monday, June 8, 2009

War, torture, and the limits of control: Man Hunt, Time Limit on DVD

The story was already in circulation, how in 1934 Fritz Lang was summoned to a meeting with Joseph Goebbels where he was offered the position of Führer of the German film industry; how Lang, whose Jewish heritage Goebbels presumably wasn’t aware of, whose ex-wife, screenwriter and actress Thea von Harbou, had already joined the Nazi party, then fled Germany immediately with nothing but the clothes on his back. The story’s so perfectly in keeping with the pursuit narratives Lang favoured. Its likely at least partially apocryphal, but anyway makes a hell of a great set-up for
Man Hunt (1941), the thriller Lang made for Fox, newly available on DVD, that opens with Walter Pidgeon lining Hitler up in his sights on the cusp of World War II. Like Powell-Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (41), Man Hunt was a rallying cry for Americans to enter the war, and it was that much more persuasive for being helmed by this visionary Viennese director who had abandoned a dazzling career in the very country he was urging his new homeland to attack.

Based on Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male (39), the film concerns big game hunter Alan Thorndike (Pidgeon), captured by SS guards after being found perched on a cliff near Hitler’s Obersalzberg home with rifle in hand. When Thorndike eventually escapes, Hitler’s Security Commander (George Sanders) relentlessly pursues him as he returns clandestinely to England, determined to get Thorndike’s signature on a statement claiming the British government ordered the assassination. Yet not only was Thorndike not given any such instructions, he wasn’t actually trying to kill Hitler at all. The rifle wasn’t even loaded. A proud sportsman, Thorndike just wanted to know if he could do it. So Man Hunt becomes the story of how one man comes to understand the Nazi threat, takes responsibility, and returns to the hunt with guns now loaded.

There are some distractions, especially with accents. Pidgeon, the Brit who sounds suspiciously Canadian, and Sanders, the German who sounds suspiciously English, actually fair better than Joan Bennett’s thinly veiled London prostitute. She’s the only one to bother attempting an accent appropriate to her character, though her broad Cockney grates like a rusty lawnmower. Fortunately she’s still lovely, sensual and sassy in spite of her character’s poutiness, and has some touching scenes with Pidgeon, who treats her more like a niece that the lover she wants to become. But Lang’s exemplary staging and camerawork is finally the reason to see Man Hunt: his beautifully rendered inserts; his exquisite use of silence and shadow; his subtle motifs, such as Pidgeon’s forest footprints echoed later by marks left on a floor by his feet when dragged out of a Nazi torture chamber; his haunting compositions, such as those involving water and night especially, or the tree-enveloped deep-focus scene that plays out in a single shot with Pidgeon stumbling away from the Nazis who hunt him through the dense Obersalzberg wilderness.

Moving ahead in time to reflect on America’s involvement in Korea and, indirectly, Hollywood’s ensnarement in the red scare, Time Limit (57) is another allegory involving responsibility, torture and the limits of patriotism. It concerns a former POW accused of collaboration with the communists whose refusal to defend himself prompts a conscientious military investigator to look deeper into his case. The title refers both to the pressure placed on the investigator to speed the ostensibly open and shut case along, and to the psychological limits upon which even the most formidable soldier breaks down and becomes malleable to the enemies’ dictates. The film came out during a time when brainwashing was an increasing concern, one that fed directly into the ideological paranoia of the Cold War.

Time Limit was the only film ever directed by character actor Karl Malden, who took on the project at the suggestion of the film’s star and producer Richard Widmark. Malden had by then firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most dependable talents, and his reputation is reflected in the pedigree of his collaborators. Besides the inimitable Widmark, who plays the investigator, the film also features excellent turns from Dolores Michaels as a stenographer who manages to be both sexy and smarter than most of her superiors, a very young Rip Torn in his first credited film role, a very vulnerable Richard Basehart as the guilt-ridden POW, and Martin Balsam, who as a desk Sergeant bullying Widmark to court-martial Basehart and get it over with, embodies the virtual flipside of the character he played that same year in 12 Angry Men. Cinematographer Sam Leavitt, who often worked for Otto Preminger, was behind the camera, which shifts seamlessly between the actors, who are the utter focus of Malden’s clean, crisp approach.

MGM’s DVD’s not great. The aspect ratio’s been reformatted and there isn’t even a menu. But the transfer looks sharp enough and the film itself is sleek and engrossing. It also speaks very much to this mentality that’s loomed over us these last several years, one that says treason is so heinous a crime that mere accusations equal culpability, while ignoring the fact that love of God and country is not itself enough to withstand the frailties of our minds when driven to their outermost limits.

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