(1932) Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by James Ashmore Creelman; Based on the short story by Richard Connell; Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD
“…We barbarians know it is after the chase, and then only, that man revels.”
– Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks)
If you think The Most Dangerous Game looks a bit familiar, it’s because the basic premise has served as a template for many other films over the past several decades. Based on a story by Richard Connell, with a screenplay by James Creelman (who also co-wrote the King Kong script), the 1932 film utilized the same creative team as 1933’s King Kong. In fact, many scenes were filmed simultaneously for both films, which shared many of the sets, actors* and crew members. Originally envisioned as a much larger production, The Most Dangerous Game ended up with a budget close to half of the original $400,000 amount. Budgetary constraints required drastic cuts to the script, with scenes omitted, spare effects shots, a smaller cast and a shorter running time.
* According to film historian Bruce Eder, star Fay Wray put in 12-hour days while working on both films. Eagle-eye viewers might also spot Noble Johnson, who played Zaroff’s mute Cossack assistant in this film and a tribal leader in King Kong.
Modern audiences might not find much common ground with protagonist Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea). An accomplished hunter, Rainsford travels the world, killing animals for sport and writing about his conquests. Outside of hunting, which seems to be his only vice, he doesn’t possess much of an edge. His version of character growth is to display the vestiges of empathy for the prey, as the tables are turned on his hunter role.
The main draw for The Most Dangerous Game is Leslie Banks’ memorable portrayal of the suave, amoral Count Zaroff. As a member of the Russian aristocracy, he escaped the Bolshevik revolution with his fortune and constructed a secluded island home* where he could continue to pursue his passions, away from prying eyes. Unlike Rainsford, he has grown tired of the hunt, but in recent years has found a new prey to re-ignite his vigor. He finds new stock for his quarry in the shipwrecked individuals that wind up on his island. Banks obviously relishes his role as the complex, sociopathic Zaroff. Sophisticated, yet savage, he’s a cultured man with a vicious streak. He’s as colorful as Rainsford is bland. A scar on Zaroff’s forehead, a relic from an old hunting injury, is a fitting metaphor for his twisted mind. When he touches the scar, it serves as a constant reminder of his disfigurement, but also provides a clue to what compels him. The closer he approaches death, the more rapturous his victories must feel. When Rainsford appears on his island, Zaroff identifies the soul of the hunter in Rainsford, and wants to bring him into the fold.
* Fun fact: The dogs that appeared on Zaroff’s estate were on loan from Harold Lloyd, who reportedly was none too pleased when they were returned to him with darkened coats.
Fay Wray doesn’t have much to do as Eve, other than play the woman in distress. The victim of a shipwreck, she represents a different type of prey for Zaroff, an object of conquest. Her character strays from Connell’s original story, which didn’t include any female characters, but she was added at the behest of the producers. Her inclusion brings another dimension to the story, and underscores Zaroff’s obsessions. Robert Armstrong (who appears as Carl Denham in King Kong) doesn’t engender much sympathy as Eve’s oafish brother Martin. With his drunken swagger and, non-existent manners, Martin is the polar opposite of Zaroff. Apparently it was the intention of the filmmakers to make his character obnoxious. If so, they succeeded beyond expectations. It’s clear he’s just being set up to become one of Zaroff’s victims. After several scenes goading Zaroff, you’re almost thankful when the inevitable happens
In his Criterion DVD commentary, Bruce Eder states that Rainsford and Zaroff represent two sides of the same coin, but I’m not sure if this is exactly the case. Both men are energized by the chase and extinguishing of life, exploiting nature for their own ends. The principle difference, of course, is that Rainsford refuses to cross the line into killing humans. By his reasoning killing animals for sport is justified, but killing people for sport is murder. While one is a universal taboo, the other is rationalized by some, including Rainsford, as a socially sanctioned form of recreation. Instead of two sides of one coin, perhaps the distinction between the two characters is better exemplified as a continuum, ranging from “acceptable” to unacceptable murder. Only a thin veneer of civilization separates them.
The Most Dangerous Game packs a lot into a very brief running time of 63 minutes. The original cut, which included more footage of Zaroff’s trophy room, was 78 minutes, but was trimmed because the scenes were deemed too graphic and disturbing by test audiences of the time. Instead of dwelling on what was lost, what was left in the final cut is sufficiently tantalizing. What remains of the trophy room scene still provides chills, and the film’s final chase sequence gets the blood pumping. The fundamental DNA of The Most Dangerous Game continues to influence other films, from direct remakes (including the 1945 Robert Wise-directed A Game of Death) to films that recycled aspects of Connell’s story, such as Predator and Battle Royale.