Known mostly for his Weimar-era silent films, Fritz Lang's career as an exile in Hollywood is all too often overlooked not only by audiences, but also by home video distributors. His 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927) may get all the buzz, but it's hard to deny that it is heavily marred by wife Thea von Harbou's cloying and sentimental script. Far better are Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and M (1931), neither of which have lost any of their edginess or grit after over seven decades, and both of which are available on nicely restored DVDs by Kino and Criterion, respectively. Slowly but surely, his near-forgotten American films, many of which are either on par or superior to his work in Germany, are making their way to DVD. Just released today is his near-forgotten Man Hunt (1941), an anti-Nazi thriller whose masterfully and subtly crafted suspense rises above any mere label of propaganda.
As the film opens, world-famous big-game hunter Walter Pidgeon has snuck through enemy lines and has his rifle aimed right at Adolf's noggin. Before he can pull the trigger, he is captured by a guard and taken to the monocle-sporting Nazi officer George Sanders, whose acid-tongued sarcasm is perfectly suited to charming, repulsively intelligent villains. Claiming he was only hunting for "sport" and never intending to make the kill, Pidgeon is sentenced to death. Escaping back to England, he finds himself on the run from both Sanders and a creepily silent John Carradine, with only a cockney gutter angel (Joan Bennett) as his only friend.
Skilled writing and snappy dialogue by Dudley Nichols combines screwball and hardboiled efficiency, a synthesis that makes sense when you consider that Nichols' myriad credits include Bringing up Baby (1938), Stagecoach (1939), It Happened Tomorrow (1944) and Lang's Scarlet Street (1945). Given its premise, Man Hunt's politics are surprisingly not overbearing, and merely provide a framework for two of Lang's more persistent themes: the intricate web of crime and a not-so-innocent man that is trapped by it. Lang's evocative use of set pieces creates some of the most memorable scenes in his long and highly memorable filmography: the opening tracking shots through dense jungle foliage; Pidgeon scurrying through London's fog-enshrouded docks; and a climactic fight on the Underground's train tracks that most certainly influenced the finale of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953).
While Fox's release of Man Hunt sheds light on a previously obscure film, several key works are still unjustifiably absent from shelves: the tense domestic noir Human Desire (1954), the magnificent Western Rancho Notorious (1952), and the psychological mass media thriller While the City Sleeps (1956). These late-period films show that Lang continually refined his expressionistic style, stripping away excess and using the camera to heighten the sense of alienation and claustrophobia that have always characterized his films. His characters run, but they can never hide — neither from their pursuers nor the camera, and ultimately not from themselves, either.
Also new to DVD this week:
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) (Criterion Collection, Region 1) - The legendary Robert Mitchum plays the title character, an aging gunrunner in the Boston mob whose luck has run out, in Peter Yates' adaptation of one of the masterpieces of crime fiction.
Points on a Space Age (2009) - (MVD Visual, Region 1) Documentary explores the life of the Sun Ra Arkestra in the years following the death of space-jazz innovator Sun Ra.
Steven Seagal Action Pack (Marked for Death, Mercenary for Justice, Driven to Kill) (Fox, Region 1) - Strung together, those titles sound kind of poetic. Maybe the same thing will happen if you watch all the movies back-to-back.
Valkyrie (2009) (United Artists, Region 1) - If Man Hunt didn't fill your Nazi quota for the week, you can always check this out. Tom Cruise takes over the Adolf-assassination duties from Walter Pidgeon. Interestingly enough, this DVD comes with a "digital copy" that you can watch on you iPod. Kind of like how new vinyl records come with mp3s. Sort of cool, but I'm still not comfortable with my thumb being bigger than the screen.
Yonkers Joe (2008) (Magnolia Home Entertainment, Region 1) - Rain Man-lite in which Chazz Palmenteri and his son hit Vegas and try and score big. The son also just tries to score.