The time is the late nineteen-thirties, and for Sir Robert Hunter (Peter O'Toole) he has given up his days to the sport of hunting. In this case, hunting a human being, for he has a personal motive for taking it upon himself to track down the Chancellor of Germany, as he has now, crouching in the undergrowth waiting for him to appear in the grounds of the country house where the statesman is staying. Drawing on all his past experience, when Adolf Hitler walks from the mansion to socialise he has him in his sights, and taking aim at the man's heart he tightens his finger on the trigger - only to be interrupted by a pair of Nazi soldiers who were patrolling, and arrest him.
The fantasy of murdering Hitler before he could start the Second World War and thereby save millions upon millions of lives has been a potent one since, well, since Geoffrey Household penned his book Rogue Male back in 1939, although he was not to know back then that he had the right idea up to a point, since German fascism may have survived the death of its most prominent exponent. But Hollywood liked the concept and director Fritz Lang, who had good reason to hate Hitler having fled Germany and the dictator's regime, was the man who brought it to the screen starring Walter Pidgeon in Man Hunt, a couple of years after the novel had been published.
Household continued his writing career after the war, yet arguably he never made the impression he made with Rogue Male as he did with any of his other work; still, good to be remembered for one classic rather than no classics. Peter O'Toole was cast in 1976 as the lead in a BBC remake of Man Hunt, also drawn from the original text, and it was a role that engrossed him, counting it as one of his personal favourites, probably because he truly loved the idea of being able to potentially murder der Fuhrer. The seventies was the last era of the conflict being so prevalent across the entertainment sphere, as the audience was moving on, and the memories were not as fresh.
Not that World War II has ever gone out of style for film and television, but in the seventies there remained very much the fashion for referencing those years from films to books to comics to television series, though this was a TV movie in effect, shot on film but with the lower budget that entailed at the time. Not that it mattered, as O'Toole was able to serve up one of his most committed performances as a man driven by the thirst for revenge against the one man who caused the execution of the love of his life, as we see in flashbacks, and if he can take down anyone else who has enabled Hitler to get to his position of power, then so much the better. However, as the story opens and Hunter is hauled off to be interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo, things look bleak for the attempted assassin.
Unexpectedly, he does get away when the Nazis try to stage his death to look like an accident, and so begins the manhunt, across an autumnal Germany, with the bad guys snapping at his heels until he can reach the relative safety of a cargo vessel to England. But the Nazis are a persistent bunch, and ominously have agents in Britain only too happy to try and kill Hunter - or do they wish to convert him to their cause, as he is a member of the upper classes and therefore more amenable to the notions of their ideology? He's having none of this, and after consulting with the curious duo Alastair Sim (in his final role) and Harold Pinter, he goes to ground: literally, as O'Toole spent a goodly portion of the latter half trapped in a hole as his would-be nemesis (John Standing) tries to get him out again. There was little flashy about Rogue Male in this incarnation, but the grim intent of purpose and O'Toole's obvious belief in the material made it compelling; it could easily have been released to cinemas and few would have felt shortchanged. Music by Christopher Gunning.
[After years of this only being available on poor quality US DVDs, it's a pleasure to see Rogue Male restored on Blu-ray by the BFI. Those features in full:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
The Guardian Lecture: Frederic Raphael (1982, 72 mins, audio only): recorded at the NFT following a screening of Rogue Male
Frederic Raphael remembers Rogue Male (2014, 4 mins): the screenwriter on how he came to the project and working with Harold Pinter
Clive Donner on Rogue Male (2008, 14 mins): extracts from the director's recording for the British Entertainment History Project, played over a stills gallery
Eva Braun Home Movies (c1939, 7 mins): footage of Hitler and Braun entertaining guests on the terrace of the Berghof
British Union of Fascists march, October 3rd 1937 (1937, 10 mins)
200 Packs of Fox Hounds Begin Season's Sport (1921, 1 min): newsreel item on the opening of a Dorset hunt
Illustrated booklet with writing by Paul Fairclough, Sarah Wood, Gustav Temple, Taylor Downing and First Blood author David Morrell, and full film credits.]