*. Based on Geoffrey Household’s classic (but now unread) 1939 novel Rogue Male. And when I say “based” I mean “loosely inspired by.”
*. Half of Rogue Male has the unnamed narrator hiding out in an enlarged rabbit burrow (not a cave). This, as the saying goes, would not do. The story here is radically overhauled. In the novel, the Pip-like character of Vaner (played by a constantly mugging and almost-too-adorable Roddy McDowall in his first American screen role) is an adult. The narrator has no brother. The narrator’s is trying to kill Hitler (actually just an unnamed dictator in the book) as revenge for the murder of his wife. There are no female characters at all.
*. I was surprised to hear Kim Newman say that he thinks this was a perfect novel to be made into a film. In fact it’s hopeless. But it has inspired a number of films, including, rather surprisingly, First Blood.
*. Should George Sanders have played Thorndike? Don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Typecasting probably contributed something to Sanders having a career that bored him to death. Yes, he’s perfect as the arrogant and cynical Nazi hound Quive-Smith. But in Rogue Male the narrator shares some of these same qualities. In fact, he’s close to being a psychopath. I think a switch in casting might have made things more interesting, as Walter Pidgeon is a bit bland and light, and hard to buy as a danger to the state. He also wasn’t British, which makes him an odd choice to play a quintessential Brit.
*. Speaking of being a quintessential Brit, it seems to me the movie goes overboard with the English stereotypes. Is there one they missed? From the toff talk to the cockney slang, the stiff upper lip and playing the game, the ubiquitous London fog and the fish and chips.
*. In its defence, it was an American-made propaganda film. They didn’t care to be subtle or accurate.
*. I think the real scenes of Underground Man take place not in Thorndike’s burrow but in the London subways. How often had films gone into the subways before this? And yet we already have the archetypal subway figure here in the man hiding behind his newspaper.
*. It’s interesting that in 1941 scorn was being heaped on the official Nazi line about the Reichstag fire. And yet, while there is some dispute over the facts, I think the mainstream opinion of historians is that the fire really was started by Marinus van der Lubbe, acting alone.
*. That Nazi “doctor” (Ludwig Stössel) is creepy, isn’t he? He has no lines, but that little smile he gives before shoving Thorndike of the cliff is a great touch.
*. “England Periled.” I love it. When was the last time you heard that usage?
*. Do you think that statue of St. Sebastian in the Berghof was an accident? No more than the chessboard. Even the direction arrow next to Jerry’s head in the Underground scene was deliberate, I’m sure.
*. The arrow on Jerry’s tam had to be big enough to serve its ultimate purpose, but doesn’t it seem too big to be a decorative badge? I think it looks silly.
*. The plot heaps improbability on improbability. In particular, the business of getting Thorndike to sign a confession implicating the British government in his assassination attempt was hard to understand even in the book. Surely they could have just forged his signature if they were planning on killing him afterwards anyway?
*. In fact, the script is pretty wretched throughout. The dialogue tries too hard, until at the end we have Thorndike threatening Quive-Smith by saying “I’ll kill you if it’s the last thing I do!” He responds, in kind, that Germany is on the march: “Today Europe, tomorrow the world!”
*. Joan Bennett. Jerry Stokes. What can we say? Lang liked Joan, but Jerry shouldn’t have been in this film at all. Alas, finding a romantic lead is part of adapting a novel to the screen. What was wanted was a Hitchcock chase film, and so.
*. The character of Jerry was obviously conceived as a prostitute and the script ties itself into knots working around this. She is even given a prominently displayed sewing machine to decorate her apartment and signify an honest profession, which seems as ridiculous as much of her dialogue.
*. This was a time and a place when gentlemen were gentlemen (recognizable as such even in rags), and women were moist and clingy (a “human leech”). The “stubborn little monkey” is finally disposed of off-screen, but I had no regrets because I couldn’t take much more of her. On the other hand, her farewell to Thorndike on the bridge turns into a genuinely moving scene after the policeman arrives. In taking on the role of a prostitute she finally gets to be herself. She also humiliates herself in order to save his ass, and he knows it but can’t acknowledge what she’s doing. Sad.
*. Thorndike never gives in to his feelings for Jerry. Assuming he has sexual feelings. Why does he hold back? Because he’s too old (he often addresses her in paternal terms), or because he’s of another class? I suspect the latter. It was never going to work out.
*. Hitler wanted Lang to make his movies, and even here you can see why. Lang had the geometry of power and the atmosphere of looming threat down pat.
*. Getting rid of the backstory that has Thorndike avenging his wife’s murder by killing Hitler again leaves the script floundering. Was Thorndike an assassin unconscious of his real motives?
*. I like how we see three potential victims targeted by various circular frames at the beginning, middle, and end of the movie. The camera is the hunter, acquiring them in its lens.
*. I enjoyed Patrick McGilligan’s DVD commentary, and found he addressed most of the points I’ve raised here, especially with regard to all of the moments where the script logic breaks down. But he does have some slip-ups. Rogue Male was not Geoffrey Household’s first book, Thorndike does not have his heels dragged on the carpet when he is brought into his final interrogation, and in All About Eve George Sanders does not play a film critic (Addison DeWitt is cringing in his grave!). The ending is also not quite taken “straight from the book.” The narrator in the novel is still a rogue male on a secret personal mission of revenge.
*. As a final note, I do love the bit of trivia that the actor playing Hitler also appeared in the same role in the newsreel footage at the beginning of Citizen Kane. His name was Carl Ekberg and he actually played Hitler in several movies. What a way to leave your mark!