Color, 1976, 102 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Clive Donner
Starring Peter O'Toole, John Standing, Alastair Sim, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL)
Published in 1939, Geoffrey Household's classic suspense novel Rogue Male came out at the start of World War II and concerns the Hitchcockian pursuit of a hunter whose possibly accidental aiming at an unnamed dictator results in his targeting by an evil totalitarian government. It was no secret that the dictator was supposed to be Hitler, something made explicit when the book was adapted for the first time by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt two years later. In 1976, the book was adapted for the first time under its original title as a prestigious BBC adaptation starring Peter O'Toole, written by Oscar winner Frederic Raphael (Darling, Eyes Wide Shut) and directed by Clive Donner, who was normally known for comedies like What's New Pussycat, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, and the film he made just prior to this, the bizarre Old Dracula.
While hunting in the forests of Germany in 1939, Robert Hunter (O'Toole) spies Adolf Hitler having an afternoon outdoor meeting at a nearby castle. Hunter aims his rifle at the monstrous dictator, either on a whim or through predetermination, only to be interrupted by a Nazi soldier chasing a wounded bird. A shot is fired at the table, and Hunter is spirited away to be interrogated, tortured, and eventually left for dead. Through a series of fortuitous events Hunter manages to make his way to a boat and get back to England, only to find out that nefarious forces are still at work around him and intent on making him pay...
Though shot on 16mm on a limited TV budget, Rogue Male manages to hit a high quality level that could have made it indistinguishable from theatrical product of the era thanks to its skillful execution across the board. It's really O'Toole's show of course since he's in almost every scene, but the supporting cast is remarkable as well including a surprising turn by none other than Harold Pinter, a great scene in a Turkish bath with legendary character actor Alastair Sim as O'Toole's uncle, and the underrated John Standing (The Psychopath, 8 1/2 Women). Also effective is the subdued but atmospheric score by Christopher Gunning, who had already started off with a bang courtesy of Hands of the Ripper and Goodbye Gemini and would go on to find immense popularity with TV's Poirot.
Somehow this film either fell into the public domain in the U.S. or has just been considered as such for years since it's turned up in a truly terrible DVD editions from companies like Alpha Video, none of which came close to doing it justice. The 2019 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition from the BFI (presumably timed to get people ready for the impending remake with Benedict Cumberbatch) is a real cause for celebration, bringing the film back into circulation in its native country (where plans to give it a theatrical release ended up causing union issues and keeping it out of sight for years) and breathing fresh life into a title that hasn't looked very good since... well, ever. The new scan of the 16mm negative looks superb with the original film grain left intact and lots of rich textures on display even in the nighttime scenes. The 24-bit LPCM English mono audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also excellent. The film can also be played with a 72-minute audio interview with Raphael from 1982 as part of The Guardian Lecture series, covering most of his career including his preference for American-style cinema, memories of Stanley Donen (great stuff) and thoughts on some of his key films. A Donner audio interview from 2000 (14m16s) as part of the British Entertainment History Project archived at the BFI) plays out over images from the film and offers some fascinating insight into the director's thought process, including his distaste for Lang's film, stories he heard from friend Roddy McDowall (who was in the first film), and the origins of this project as a series of British "Armchair Heroes" films for television (of which two others ended up being made). A 2014 interview with Raphael (4m46s) expands on some of his memories from the audio extra as he chats about getting Donner hired for the project, his admiration for the novel, and the casting process including the path to getting Pinter involved. Also included are some very chilling archival extras, a "British Union of Fascists March, October 3rd, 1937" newsreel (9m41s) and a color reel of Eva Braun's home movies (6m55s) from the Berghof, essentially what you see recreated at the beginning of this film. Also included is a brief bit of 1921 footage (48secs), "200 Packs of Fox Hounds Begin Season's Sport," tying in with the film's depiction of hunting and the English countryside. The insert booklet features an essay by Paul Fairclough about the film's genesis and broadcast history, a Sarah Wood analysis of the film's relationship to its source novel, a Gustav Temple examination of the film's use of period clothing, an appreciation by First Blood author David Morrel, and additional notes on the bonus material.