Plots and conspiracies to kill political figures and social activists among others have existed as long as history itself. The flaw (or strength depending on how you look at) with making a movie about those subjects is that much of the time the audience will already know the end of the story. JFK, Lincoln, Ghandi, Archbishop Romero, you know that in the end, they're going to die. The same goes for people who weren't killed, think Day of the Jackal. Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated so it's obvious the Jackal is going to fail.
The enjoyment out of stories based in historical truth is in how the assassin is going to fail. The survivor of many assassination attempts, Adolf Hitler finally took his own life in Berlin in 1945 as the Russian forces closed in all around his underground complex. But for every attempt history has documented, like Valkyrie, how many failed? That's the basic idea of 1941's Man Hunt, an attempt on Hitler's life and the subsequent fallout in the summer of 1939 before Germany invaded Poland.
A tense opening sequence introduces a lone man, Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) walking through some a densely-wooded forest area. Armed with a precision rifle, Thorndike sets up a shot and is ready to take it. Who's in his scope? Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Third Reich. But before he can shoot, he's stopped by a guard. Under intense interrogation, Thorndike won't admit he was trying to kill Hitler. Instead, he says he just wanted to know what it felt like to have Hitler in his sights, but of course no one believes him. Thorndike refuses to sign a confession and ends up escaping when his captors attempt to kill him, all the while trying to make it seem like an accident.
Running for his life, Thorndike somehow makes it to safety, stowing away on a Danish freighter meant for London. But he isn't as safe as he thinks and soon finds out that two German agents are on his trail, Maj. Quive-Smith (George Sanders) and Mr. Jones (John Carradine). Thorndike gets help from a lower class British woman, Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett), who has no idea what's she stepped into. Thorndike knows he cannot be captured, but he also can't go to the English government for help. He's completely on his own and must figure out a way to survive.
The premise is very interesting, and the opening sequence is a great introduction to the story. Seeing Hitler in Thorndike's sights is a startling moment because even when he places a bullet in the chamber, it's obvious he won't pull the trigger, not successfully at least. But the movie goes downhill almost immediately after this extended sequence. Thorndike escapes when the Germans plan to make his death look like an accident in a truly ridiculous scene. He's pushed off a cliff -- a high one at that -- but somehow survives without as much as a broken bone. I had trouble believing that Hitler's security force would have waited till hours later to check that the man was dead. On a bigger level, more likely they would have put a bullet in his head and not thought twice about it before even heading up to that cliff.
But it doesn't stop there as Thorndike seeds aid from Bennett's Jerry. This plot device has been used countless times and usually in a much stronger fashion; an unknowing, sometimes unwilling individual gets involved in some dangerous situation and decides to go all in. But watching the character, all I could think of was how she acts like a pouting toddler most of the time. Thorndike does his best to look out for her and keep her out of danger, but she grimaces, scrunches up her face and demands to be taken along. At one point, she even demands he buy her a new pin for her hat because her favorite one fell off when they were being chased. Granted, this pin serves a purpose late in the movie, but that doesn't take away the unnecessarily obnoxious make-up of the character.
All those logistical flaws -- incompetent Nazis, really? -- and annoyances aside, this would be a good movie. Having the Gestapo hunting you down does have its fair share of worry and tension involved. Two chase scenes, one in a busy London subway station, and the other a race through the streets on a foggy night, highlight the movie's better aspects. But too often, Pidgeon acts like the proper English gentleman, shrugging off the situation with a 'tut, tut' and 'cheerio, old chap' but in these scenes it'd be hard to ruin the atmosphere. His confrontations with the German agents are surprisingly graphic, not in what they show but what's actually happening in terms of violence, especially considering it was released in 1941.
Could have been an excellent WWII thriller but the flaws are just too much to ignore. Good villainous turns for Sanders and Carradine as the German agents on the hunt (Carradine barely says 10 words and is terrifying as all hell). The premise alone might make you want to check this one out, and I won't say 'don't do it' but be forewarned about a very flawed and sometimes entertaining movie. The ending is a little much too, even for a movie with a propaganda motive. Sorry, couldn't find a trailer anywhere.
Man Hunt (1941): **/****