Hunted (1952)

Hunted was originally released in 1952. The film starred Dirk Bogarde as Chris Lloyd, the hunted man of the title. Produced by the Rank Organisation, Hunted was the first time Bogarde’s name appeared above the title as the sole starring player.

The film opens with a little boy (played by Jon Whiteley) running through the busy London streets on his own, carrying his teddy. He is a little grubby and wears somewhat dishevelled clothing. He enters an old bomb site, scrambling over the wreckage of buildings which have lain abandoned since their partial destruction during the Second World War. He is grabbed by a man who demands what he’s doing there. He shakes the terrified little boy in a frenzy of panic. When they hear people coming, the man–Chris Lloyd (Bogarde)–grabs the boy and makes a run for it. We see the courting couple whose approach we heard: they discover the dead body of a man over whom Lloyd had been standing.

Lloyd drags little Robbie through the streets, ever fearful that he is being sought by the Police. He keeps Robbie with him because he is afraid that he will raise the alarm and identify him. But also because he will not match the Police description if he has a young child with him rather than being a single man on his own.

Robbie’s adoptive mother comes home to find him gone. The kitchen curtains are smouldering. During the next few scenes, we see Lloyd trying to work out his next move. He tries to send Robbie away, having no further use for him. But Robbie says he doesn’t want to go home. This is something of an alarm bell: later we learn that his adoptive father is violent. A small child has such a turbulent home life that he would rather be with a stranger. There are moments during Hunted when it feels as if Chris has a little of the child in him. From his own telling of a bedtime story to Robbie, it is clear that Chris is also from a home with little love in it. Perhaps then little Robbie recognises himself in Chris, so trusts him.

The Police eventually put together the missing child and the murderer as being on the run together: Mrs Campbell identifies the teddy bear dropped at the murder scene as Robbie’s. When Robbie is foiled in his attempt to fetch Chris’ money from his flat by the presence of the Police, they are forced to flee. Robbie is hungry, so they stop at a cafe. Chris only has enough money for a sandwich and milk for Robbie, allowing himself to go without. This is one of the first tender moments between the two. He even explains regretfully to Robbie that he doesn’t have enough money to buy him ice cream when the waitress offers it: suggesting that he would willingly have treated him if he had had the money.

Chris returns to his flat under the cover of darkness. His wife attempts to excuse her infidelity and seduce him, but he ultimately takes his money and leaves. In the next scene, we find Chris and Robbie hitchhiking. They walk along beside farmland, waiting for a truck to hitch with. They both have fresh clothes: Chris has bought Robbie long trousers and a warm jumper more suited to their journey than the ragged sweater and short trousers he had been wearing the day before. This scene shows us yet more examples of his regard and care for Robbie, when Robbie finds a woodlouse and Chris gives him an empty matchbox to keep it in. Robbie asks him questions about the things he is seeing, giving us the idea that he hasn’t had the type of attention from adults around him to learn about some of the most basic things in his world. Chris explains gently and without ridicule what the team of threshing farm workers are doing in the nearby field.

They eventually hop aboard a truck bound for the north. While riding, Robbie asks if Chris knows The Owl and the Pussycat, then recites it for him. This is a shining moment, as it was the piece with which Jon Whiteley was discovered when he performed it on Children’s Hour on BBC Radio. His recitation is given with lovely Scottish diction and adorable sincerity.

When they reach the truck’s stopping point they head to a boarding house recommended by the driver. Chris telephones to his brother in Scotland. While he’s gone, Mrs Sykes (Kay Walsh) decides to get Robbie ready for bed. She finds a lack of pyjamas for Robbie in Chris’ rucksack, and other things, suspicious. She sees welts on Robbie’s back while he’s in the bath and assumes the worst, despite Robbie’s insistence that Chris didn’t cause them. When asked “he is your Daddy, isn’t he?”, Robbie just plays with his woodlouse silently.

Later, it is emphasised again that Robbie has been physically abused at his adoptive home. He spills a glass of milk and cowers in fright, until Chris realises that he feared he would be punished. Chris reassures him, then tells him a story. It starts off as a fictional tale, then morphs into Chris’ own life story. We find out that his own upbringing was not so different to Robbie’s. He hasn’t belonged anywhere for a long time, until getting married. This is why he reacted so strongly to his wife’s infidelity.

In the morning, Mrs Sykes tries to keep Chris busy while her husband goes to fetch the Police. Chris realises he must get away–and quickly. He knows Robbie will be safe with Mr and Mrs Sykes. But Robbie follows him. Chris jumps off a railway bridge into a freight car. He watches in terror as Robbie follows him. Luckily Robbie isn’t hurt, and once again we see Chris’ tenderness towards him. He promises not to leave him again.

They continue their journey on foot. At first it is an adventure. But they run out of the scant food that Chris has stolen from a farm. The weather begins to beat them. They finally reach Chris’ brother Jack’s place. He gives them food and a place to dry their clothes. Little Robbie falls asleep while eating. Jack tells Chris they can’t stay.

Chris and Robbie start back out together again. The two of them against the elements. These scenes are so effective. They are played so truthfully, we are totally pulled in as the audience. The photography and lighting make the landscape seem so much against them. It jumps out of the screen almost as a character of its own. The musical score is also very expressive of the perils and obstacles which just keep beating Chris down.

By this point in the film, we as the audience are completely on his side. Chris and Robbie seem to belong together. They have grown attached to each other. Chris has shown Robbie, despite his misgivings, that he can trust him. They care about each other. They become the only proper, loving family each other have.

Eventually, they come to the coast. Chris realises they could get away on a boat. He steals some food from a local house under the cover of night. In the morning they manage to get aboard and steal a fishing trawler when the fleet comes in.

They are free and clear, until Chris discovers that Robbie is unwell. He wrestles with himself in the most tense scene of Hunted, when we identify so deeply with Chris. The close of the film is heartbreaking, yet so satisfying. It shows Chris’ ultimate goodness, as brought out by the innocent, needful Robbie. He puts Robbie’s needs above his own in one last, ultimate way.

In conclusion…

Hunted is quite an extraordinary film. In contrast to some of Bogarde’s other roles of the period, although he has committed murder, the story finds him sympathetic. To pair a murderer with a child seems like it could be grotesque. In fact, it offers so much scope for character exploration. It highlights the vulnerability in the character of the murderer Chris. There is subtlety in the way that this is explored.

There are highs and lows in Hunted. Although basically a two-hander between Bogarde and Whiteley, they are surrounded by a great supporting cast. Elizabeth Sellars as Chris’ wife is grasping and cold. Geoffrey Keen as the detective in charge of the investigation is sympathetic yet tough. Even Jane Aird as Robbie’s adoptive mother gives a nuanced performance.

Hunted is a strong film that is well worth checking out. It could be seen as having no relevance today. After all, it was made seven decades ago. It was filmed in black and white. But it transcends these potential weaknesses. The black and white gives the film a palpable atmosphere. There are some really close close-ups which give a feeling of claustrophobia and a sense of Chris’ desperation. It is such a compelling film. Hunted isn’t currently on any subscription platform to stream, but it is available on DVD in a digitally remastered edition from Strawberry Media.

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