Although McGilligan suggests that Lang had input on the script after joining the production, Lang told Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America that “the script was finished and Zanuck offered the picture to John Ford, who didn’t want to do it. Then MacGowan, who had always wanted me, went to Zanuck and I got the picture. But usually I work with the writers.” [Emphasis in original.] What Lang did bring to the film is Roddy McDowell. The part of the cabin boy was written for a crewmember and Lang had the character’s age dropped and cast McDowell in his first Hollywood film although John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” – that McDowell also appears in – opened first. Or so the story goes.
Based on Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, Rogue Male, “Manhunt” opens in what appears to be a wilderness that Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang describes as “a picturesque Nibelungen-like forest” where Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) – a big game hunter – is apparently stalking prey. The sequence goes from shots of the forest to following footprints and then to the man himself. Thorndike is on a rise above Berghof – the residence of Adolf Hitler near Berchtesgaden – and Thorndike has the führer in his sights and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Smiling and waving to Hitler (who can’t see him), he reloads and is attacked by a sentry before he can fire and is captured.
After being subjected to enhanced interrogation, as they say, Thorndike is brought before Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders). (There is a story that the Hays Office was disturbed by how the Germans were portrayed in the film and that the torture scenes were cut as a result. If the story is true, then the film becomes more Langian – by default – by the inference of violence as in “M” or showing the result of violence as in “The Big Heat.” More than likely, the scene was cut before Lang ever saw the script.) Quive-Smith is also a big game hunter and there’s a lot of anti-Nazi propaganda along with an implied class affinity between the two men. After Thorndike refuses to sign a confession that he tried to assassinate Hitler on orders from the British government, and realizing that Thorndike has friends and relatives in high places, the Nazis take him to a cliff where Thorndike can have a fatal accident. Instead, Thorndike escapes.
Thorndike makes it back to England with the help of the cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall) although the Nazis put an agent aboard, Mr. Jones (John Carradine), who spots Thorndike on the London docks and Thorndike loses them with the help of Jerry (Joan Bennett) who Thorndike grabs when he is hiding in the lobby of her apartment building. The Hays Office found the idea of a good-natured and patriotic prostitute troublesome so Jerry became a seamstress and the camera goes out of its way to show a sewing machine in her apartment several times. Apparently, she was going out in the middle of the night to look for ripped trousers or coats with missing buttons.
That is basically the first 45-minutes of the film and the opening scenes are almost six minutes without dialog. This film is usually remembered as the film where Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett first worked together – Bennett had worked with Nichols on “Hush Money” (1931) and “She Wanted a Millionaire” (1932). It was also Lang’s first film with Dudley Nichols and the three of them would work together again. It was also – and just as important as having a script by Nichols – the third time that Lang had worked with art director Wiard Ihnen after “The Return of Frank James” and “Western Union.” Ihnen recalled – according to Ott – “that he and Lang discussed the design of ‘Manhunt’ for approximately a month. During their talks, Ihnen would make quick sketches of sets based on Lang’s descriptions.”
What resulted from Zanuck keeping Lang away from the script was that Lang’s energy was focused on the visuals and they threw together the set of the bridge with stuff that was already on the lot and what is seen in the film is exactly what they had and it appears to be a bridge based on camera angles and lighting. Zanuck – according to Lang – didn’t even want the bridge scene shot. In this scene Jerry – the seamstress – pretends to be a streetwalker to save Thorndike from being recognized by the policeman who has stopped them. “When a whore plays a whore,” said Zanuck, according to Lang, “in front of the man she loves – that is not tragic. When a decent girl plays a whore, then it is tragic.” Lang would tell Bogdanovich that the whole conversation was “silly” and shot the scene anyway with the full cooperation of Ihnen.
This film may be the most classic example of Lang’s work in Hollywood viewed on a purely technical level. The reviews were ecstatic. The New York Herald Tribune called it a “masterly job” and American Cinematographer wrote “Arthur Miller can always be counted on to contribute noteworthy photography to a picture, but his latest, ‘Manhunt,’ is exceptional, even for him.” Anthony Bower writing in The Nation seemed to nail it. “The adaptation gains in thrills what it loses in plausibility,” wrote Bower. “The director, Fritz Lang, seems able to give a few lessons to the technique of suspense even to Alfred Hitchcock and has created out of a maze of improbabilities, inaccuracies, and poor performances a really exciting picture.”
The film – according to McGilligan – made the top ten list of the year from many US critics and was a solid hit for the studio and for Lang. Lang was now a Hollywood studio contract director and while that seemed to be what he wanted, his bizarre response to this success is difficult to understand.
The next film assigned to Lang was “Confirm or Deny,” based on a story by Samuel Fuller and Henry Wales with a screenplay by Jo Swerling. Lang told Peter Bogdanovich “I had a gall bladder attack – which wasn’t very strong, but it was painful – and I saw a way out, so . . .” Lang said that he only worked on the film for “four or five days” although McGilligan cites studio record that show he worked for two weeks. Nobody seems to believe the gall bladder story as Joan Bennett states in her autobiography, Lang “walked off.” Archie Mayo finished the film.
By 1942, Lang was working on a treatment about Billy the Kid. “I would have loved to make a picture about Billy the Kid,” Lang told Bogdanovich. “You know the original man? In the photos he looked like a moron, which he probably was. And if I could have had the chance to make the first picture, I would have made a moron out of him.”
Lang was then assigned to Jean Gabin’s first Hollywood film, “Moontide.” Bogdanovich writes “Lang only worked four days on the picture before [Archie] Mayo took over.” The story is far more complicated. Neither Lang nor Gabin was happy with John O’Hara’s script and Nunnally Johnson was called in to trim the dialog and rewrite some scenes. Studio records – once again cited by McGilligan – show that Lang worked on the film for three weeks. The story goes that Lang approached Salvador Dali to design props for the nightmare scene and that they were rejected as being too “horrifying.” The nightmare scene that currently exists in the film – with all those ticking clocks – seems to be done by Lang although there isn’t any way to know as it also isn’t known if Charles G. Clarke or Lucien Ballard shot it. With the exception of the bodiless yet speaking empty dress, the story about Dali’s work being rejected seems to be true.
The story goes that Lang taunted Gabin about Marlene Dietrich – who Gabin was seeing at the time – and that was the reason that Lang had to leave the film. If that story is true it explains the how far more than it explains why Fritz Lang essentially walked off two films in a row. Lang had the same major beef about both films: They were, “very phony” and “artificial.” The reference to “artificial” applied to “Moontide” and the complaint referred to “an artificial indoor quay on the Fox lot.” That’s an odd observation coming from a director who has said in numerous articles that he preferred the control working on studio sets allowed him. The real reason Lang walked off these films will never be known. Once again, Archie Mayo was called in and he finished “Moontide.”
Lang’s walking off two films in a row runs counter to the advice that he gave to Austrian playwright Carl Zuckmayer. Zuckmayer had a project cancelled and then Hal Wallis offered him a contract to work on the screenplay of “Don Juan” at Warner Bros. Zuckmayer told Lang that he was going to refuse the offer. “In Hollywood,” Lang told Zuckmayer, “you never said ‘no’ to anything. To refuse an assignment is to be fired.”
Lang’s agent negotiated a parting of the ways between Lang and the studio with the proviso that Lang still owed them a film. On the basis of the success of “Manhunt,” a producer approached Lang to do another wartime home-front propaganda film.
© 2013 William Ahearn
In Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner describes how “Manhunt” came to be: “Although Kenneth MacGowan, then a producer at Fox, had Fritz Lang in mind originally as director of Dudley Nichols’ script for ‘Manhunt,’ it was offered first to John Ford, who turned it down because he did not like the subject matter.”
Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – not surprisingly – has a different take. According to McGilligan, Nichols wrote the script with Ford in mind and they had worked together previously numerous times including “Stagecoach,” “The Long Voyage Home” and “The Informer.” In this version of the story, Ford is too busy with his production company, Argosy, to do the film rather than having problems with the subject matter. When Ford dropped out, Darryl Zanuck asked MacGowan for the best candidate and MacGowan suggested Fritz Lang. What impressed Zanuck about Lang wasn’t “Fury” or “You Only Live Once,” it was two successive moneymakers in the form of “The Return of Frank James” and “Western Union” that put Lang into a multi-film deal with 20th Century Fox and in a position for a higher profile assignment.