The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.
One fascinating point made by Tom Gunning's masterful book The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity is that Lang focused more and more on objects in his films after he emigrated to America. Watching Man Hunt—a long unreleased and quite rare American Lang made in 1941 that is finally available in the US on DVD through Fox—I couldn’t help but remember Gunning’s point. And the point is the point—to follow the second half of the story, all one needs to do is follow an arrow.
When Walter Pidgeon narrowly escapes Germany in 1939 after being falsely accused of trying to kill Hitler, a young woman (Joan Bennett) in London helps him hide from the pursuing Gestapo agents (led by George Sanders!). In return for the assistance, Pidgeon buys Bennett an arrow-shaped hat pin, which unexpectedly carries much of the forces of emotion and meaning in the last half of the film. The importance of the hat pin—at once a sign of emotion, a stand-in for a person, and a material object in the world—is given equal footing with the actual dangers and deeds of Walter Pidgeon, our hero. If we follow the path of the arrow, we can see this new side of Fritz Lang, where an object becomes the principal expression of meaning in the film, standing as much for affection as for fate: an intimate gift from a man to a woman, alluding at once to Cupid and to death.
Pidgeon plays a big game hunter and marksman accused, in the summer before the war, of attempting to assassinate Hitler. Despite torture, he insists to George Sanders that he never intended to kill Hitler, that killing is inhumane and that he was hunting for the sport of it. Like many-a-film in this era of American cinema, our male hero dislikes what the Germans are doing, but chooses to take an ambivalent stance in the war. This all changes, as it must in Hollywood, by the introduction of a girl—lovely Joan. Normally—and see Casablanca for the canonical example—our hero would be convinced to fight the Nazis through the melodrama of his relationship to the girl. Not so for Lang; it is not Joan that convinces Walter, but what happens to Joan.
Young Joan is not an object of human sympathy in the story—though she may be for the audience—but is rather a sweet, benign person who helps Pidgeon at the right moment—a tool with a pretty face. Pidgeon has no romantic interest in the girl who is clearly the romantic lead of the film; Joan Bennett is an object, and nothing more. Which is why she can be replaced by the hat pin associated with her. As we will see, once Lang links the two objects—Joan and arrow—they become practically interchangeable.
Pidgeon, an unexpectedly callous character despite his off-hand casualness, instead of leaving Joan with a kiss decides to leave her with a hat pin to commemorate their time together. Joan decides on an arrow:
Already the object's meaning escapes its initial purpose in the melodrama: the hat pin's unnerving weapon-like appearance is pointed out by the shop seller, who, with deep irony, is given the line: "You will have it still when you die":
Despite the hint, for the meantime the hat pin is sign of the relationship between Joan and Walter, even, perhaps, a wishful expression of Joan's that she has been claimed by Walter. The truth is, she desires to be involved in the romantic melodrama Lang refuses to give us; to Walter, she is only a useful "kid." For now, we see the pin and think of their togetherness—for her, romantic, for him, utilitarian:
Focusing on Joan, the use of the hat pin is tied to romantic melodrama, and without Walter around, the pin suggests the couple's separation:
Disconnected from Walter, Joan seems to attain a greater degree of vulnerability with her arrow pin so prominent. Her immediate vulnerability when alone is a brutal, pragmatic reminder of her unrealistic romantic vision of herself—no longer useful to Walter, she is isolated, a precarious object:
Last glimpses of togetherness, the arrow, along with Joan's joy, retains its false romantic connotation:
Alone, again, this time forever:
Later—Walter has fled to hide in a cave in the countryside, and has been found out by our Nazi George Sanders. Where is our lovely Joan? Sanders, outside the cave, hands Walter a status update:
Though George Sanders explains the "accident" that has befallen her, it is only upon seeing and holding this object, this arrow, that Pidgeon understands what has happened to Bennett. And this object, telling him what has happen to another object, is what convinces him to finally take action against the Nazis. This is not a hokey contrivance; Lang has shown us what kind of man Pidgeon is and how he thinks of Joan, so for Man Hunt to finish its exacting equation of what steps must be taken to spur one to action, Lang takes his object-fixation to its extreme. Pidgeon takes this object that first signified Joan, and now signifies death, and makes it an actual object of death:
“We are left only with places and objects, mementos of the characters we have lost and of the horrors that have taken place” (Gunning, p. 175).