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Canada 1931: The unsociable trapper Johnson lives for himself in the ice-cold mountains near the Yukon river. During a visit in the town he witnesses a dog-fight. He interrupts the game and buys one of the dogs - almost dead already - for $200 against the owner's will. When the owner Hasel complains to Mountie Sergeant Millen, he refuses to take action. But then the loathing breeder and his friends accuse Johnson of murder. So Millen, although sympathetic, has to try to take him under arrest - but Johnson defends his freedom in every way possible.
For more about Death Hunt and the Death Hunt Blu-ray release, see Death Hunt Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on August 31, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Andrew Stevens (I), Carl Weathers, Ed Lauter, Scott Hylands
Director: Peter R. Hunt
» See full cast & crew
Death Hunt Blu-ray Review
Emperor of the North.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, August 31, 2013
Most people probably associate the so-called "wild west" mostly with the 19th century, that period after America's east coast had become largely settled, and westward expansion had begun pushing its way ever nearer toward the Pacific, but before the Industrial Revolution changed us from a largely agrarian economy to a more urban and mechanized one. But as the really interesting 1981 film Death Hunt depicts, at least some elements of the wild west survived well into the 20th century. While this film boasts the ever popular "based on a true story" imprimatur, its relation to actual historical fact is tangential at best. That doesn't necessarily mean the film is lesser for that fact, simply that one should always take these sorts of claims with a veritable pillar of salt. There evidently was a Yukon trapper named Albert Johnson, played in this film by Charles Bronson, and there indeed was even a Canadian Mountie named Edgar Millen, played in the film by Lee Marvin, but their actual interaction was rather brief, since evidently Johnson shot and killed Millen rather early in what turned out to be a headline making escape attempt that took Johnson across the ostensibly uncrossable Richardson Pass in the dead of winter in 1931. Death Hunt completely recasts the character of Johnson as a sort of noble loner who does what is inarguably a good deed, saving a badly wounded dog from forced fighting, only to find himself on the receiving end of a lynch mob mentality that ultimately becomes an international "coalition of the willing" working to bring Johnson in for a then sizable reward. The film is notable for its often stunning Canadian locations, as well as for yet another largely wordless but still powerful performance by Bronson. Death Hunt may in fact not have much relationship with the real Albert Johnson, but it's exciting and scenic and offers an object lesson in that peculiar sort of morality that actually helped forge our modern idea of what the wild west must have been like.
Director Peter Hunt introduces us to the character of Johnson in a way that offers us an unmistakable Bronson without actually totally revealing the actor. We see a pair of weathered boots fastened securely into stirrups, intercut with scenes of a really vicious dogfight (I earnestly hope the ASPCA was involved in the making of this film, for it certainly looks like these two dogs are actually going after each other). There's an obviously villainous guy named Hazel (Ed Lauter) who evidently owns the now blood soaked Alaskan husky who is one of the two dogs engaged in the fierce battle. Hazel is trash talking and seemingly about to get in a fight himself when suddenly the stranger whose feet we've seen appears. And again Hunt does something fairly remarkableinstead of showing us this still unknown guy, we get a rather long, lingering shot of only Bronson's eyes. And that's enough, really, to impart a rather incredible glut of information about the character. Doleful, world weary, defensive and yet weirdly vulnerable, these eyes are the window into what seems to be a valiant but troubled soul.
Though we don't yet know his name, we soon feel that Johnson is a good guy when he tackles Hazel, and then throws a hundred bucks at him informing Hazel the dog is changing owners. Hazel is in no position to argue, with Johnson's foot at his neck and all, but he does anyway, insisting the dog is worth two hundred bucks. Without so much as a word, Johnson opens up his wallet and throws another bill on Hazel's face and then picks up the very badly wounded dog and places it gently on the handmade sled that is being pulled by his horse. As Johnson takes off into the snowy wilderness, Hazel starts screaming that his dog's been stolen and that it's worth thousands. Some people are never satisfied.
Meanwhile an eager young Mountie recruit named Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens) rides into town and asks Hazel if he knows where the Commander, Sgt. Millen (Lee Marvin) might be. Millen is engaging in what seems to be his most regular activity, namely getting soused at the local saloon. Adams' straight arrow approach seems to slightly amuse Millen, but Hazel is there, almost frantic, insisting that his dog has been stolen and that Millen needs to do something about it. Millen seems to know that Hazel is up to no good, and doesn't exactly leap into action.
Hazel simply won't leave well enough alone and ends up recruiting a bunch of his buddies to storm Johnson's isolated cabin. Johnson proves himself to be no fool, managing to kill one of his would be assailants, but sadly losing his dog in the process. With the death of one of the combatants, Millen is sucked into the gaping maw of a conflict he knows has been manufactured by Hazel, but one which he also knows he's responsible for sorting out. He leads a bunch of guys out to Johnson's cabin, and manages to talk to Johnson for a few minutes before one of the posse gets an itchy trigger finger, setting off a huge maelstrom which concludes with Johnson's cabin being destroyed and several of Millen's men receiving either fatal or at least serious wounds. However the smoking rubble of Johnson's cabin reveals no Johnson, and the chase is on.
The bulk of the rest of the film is a series of episodic figurative ping pong matches between Johnson and Millen. It's revealed that Johnson has a history in the American armed services (something evidently the real Johnson did not), which allows him to avoid traditional tracking methods. But the real interest here is not necessarily Johnson's skill in evading his would be captors, but instead is the growing awareness on Millen's part that he's involved in what amounts to a charade. He has an increasing number of hangers on following in his wake, especially after a reward is posted for Johnson's capture, but he increasingly questions why Johnson is being sought at all.
Death Hunt makes some salient points about what true justice means, but its most defining characteristics are probably its lush Canadian scenery and the gritty performances of many of the actors, two elements which might seem to be distinctly at odds with each other. Bronson's role is nearly wordless, and indeed though he has top billing here, this is in essence Marvin's film, for its his character that really drives the narrative and the ultimate dramatic shape of the film. He's typically hard bitten here, but he also displays a surprisingly soft side, especially with regard to the character played by Angie Dickinson in what is more or less a glorified cameo as a widow who becomes romantically involved with Millen. Carl Weathers is also on hand giving a nicely stolid performance as Millen's main tracker, and Andrew Stevens is appropriately naļve as the young by the book recruit who gets a lesson in life and the law in the wild white yonder of the Yukon.
Death Hunt Blu-ray, Video Quality
Death Hunt is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Timeless Media Group (an imprint of Shout! Factory) with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.84:1. This is a surprisingly strong transfer for what is not a very well remembered film. The opening credits sequence which is comprised of opticals is rather grainy and somewhat dirty looking, but as soon as the credits have ended, things improve markedly, with really nicely saturated and accurate looking color and some impressive fine detail in close-ups. While this high definition presentation does look nicely filmic, with a healthy grain structure, there does appear to have been some moderate sharpening done to the picture, as very light ringing is sometimes noticeable, especially around tree branches and the like.
Death Hunt Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Death Hunt features a nice sounding lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that occasionally offers minimal separation, but which boasts excellent fidelity that supports dialogue, effects and the rather nice score by Jerrold Immel very well. The film has more than its fair share of sound effects, including everything from the vicious snarls of fighting dogs to the rumble of a vintage biplane, and they all sound nicely full bodied. There's no appreciable damage to this track, and along with its excellent fidelity comes nicely wide dynamic range.
Death Hunt Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Death Hunt Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
In their commentary included on this Blu-ray as a supplement, the writers of Death Hunt complain just a tad about Peter Hunt's "vision" for the film, which evidently departed from theirs in several significant ways (they do cut Hunt some slack, detailing how he was brought on to the project at the last moment and really didn't have a lot of time to prepare). And truth be told, there does seem to be a bit of a disconnect between the gritty, often quite violent, ethos of the screenplay and the almost glamorous framings of impressive Canadian snowfields and mountain passes. But in a way that disconnect actually works toward the benefit of the film, making it evident how Man's sometimes innate cruelty and misguided quests for vengeance is as much a part of nature as the great outdoors. This film boasts a nicely impressive lead performance by Marvin and an equally impressive turn by Bronson, who is almost mute throughout the entire picture. Timeless Media Group has done a commendable job here, offering several nice supplements and providing a nice looking and sounding package. Recommended.
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