The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Directed by: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman (based on The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell)
Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong
The production of The Most Dangerous Game is almost as interesting as the film itself, based on Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story of the same name. The film was shot at night on RKO Studio sets built for the following year’s King Kong. The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong would share various cast and crew, most notably stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, composer Max Steiner, and director Ernest B. Schoedsack. Merian C. Cooper, producer of The Most Dangerous Game, would also go on to co-direct King Kong. Anybody who has seen the incredible Kong film might be familiar with many of the sets featured in the last half of The Most Dangerous Game, giving the whole project an odd, but comfortable, sense of familiarity. While this film was not nearly as financially successful as King Kong, it is regarded by many as the strongest adaptation of Connell’s story, and one of the very best pre-code examples of a tight, effective thriller.
The Most Dangerous Game sees famous hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) become shipwrecked on an island owned by a Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). There he is joined by siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong) Trowbridge, who were also shipwrecked on the island in a completely unrelated accident. Things start off innocently enough, but soon it is clear to Rainsford that something about Zaroff is amiss. The Count’s leading hobby is that of hunting, but not in the same way that Bob is accustomed to. Zaroff speaks of the hunt satisfying the primal, savage urges of man, and it’s clear that he has continuously tried to raise the stakes of his big game expeditions. In other words, hunting makes Zaroff horny…really, really disturbingly horny. No longer satisfied with buffalo or tigers, Zaroff has decided on a new prey…man.
At just slightly over an hour long, The Most Dangerous Game runs at one hell of a fast clip. Its short run time doesn’t afford it the detailed world-building that longer films feature, but it isn’t really a movie that needs it to be memorable. We are immediately thrown into the film by briefly meeting Bob Rainsford, establishing that he is a famed hunter and our protagonist. From there, The Most Dangerous Game hardly ever lets up – we experience the yacht’s crash, which leaves Bob alone and in a desperate situation, and then quickly move on to Zaroff’s chateau. Once there, the sinister atmosphere begins to build, thanks in part to some excellent set designs, and an efficient screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman. The dialogue is quick, unsubtle, and concise, which makes the film feel pulpy, but the result is something thrilling, fun, and efficient. Zaroff’s introduction can be likened to the introduction of some of the famous Universal horror movie monsters from the same time period – the character is immediately established as being intimidating, mysterious, and deeply compelling in his worldview. Once he begins conversing with Bob about hunting, he can’t help but say a little too much – he’s far more interested in the thrill of the hunt than anybody else in the chateau, even the world renowned hunter. His festishizing of hunting makes Zaroff even more disturbing to viewers, especially when he begins to give Fay Wray’s Eve some mean side eye. The concise nature of the screenplay is one of the best things about The Most Dangerous Game – it’s clear from just ten minutes into the film that the gang are in for one hell of a night.
The performances in The Most Dangerous Game are all around solid, with the standout being Leslie Banks’ Zaroff. While he doesn’t exactly pass for a Russian Count, his presence is nonetheless sinister. He puts on a gentlemanly facade on the outside, but it’s clear by the film’s ending that he’s anything but. Zaroff sets strict rules for his (literal) manhunts, and yet takes every measure to ensure that the odds are always in his favour – not exactly sportsmanlike in my opinion. Banks’ over-the-top performance makes Zaroff an unlikable, but compelling and very fun villain. The film’s direction is another highlight, especially in its action set-pieces late in the film. Bob and Eve are forced to play to Zaroff’s disturbing fantasies, running through detailed jungle sets in almost complete darkness. These scenes are thrilling and incredibly well-paced, never allowing Bob and Eve to rest for more than a moment before they catch a glimpse of their hunter. The two climactic action scenes feel modern in their blocking and choreography, and are helped by some foggy, shadow-heavy cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard. These scenes also feature much of the film’s pre-code elements, with Bob being forced to kill several of Zaroff’s hunting dogs, and later killing more than one of his assailants. The most egregious example of The Most Dangerous Game’s pre-code content lays in Zaroff’s sexualization of the thrill of the hunt – while he never outright says that hunting gets his rocks off, it’s made pretty obvious that something about it is satisfying him on a deeper level.
The Most Dangerous Game is one hell of a thrill ride – it’s fast-paced thanks to a tight screenplay, features a great hammy villainous performance from Leslie Banks, and has some tremendous early action set-pieces. It’s not exactly a piece of highbrow drama, but it’s earned its place in cinematic history by being a balls to the wall adaptation of a memorable story. If you’re interested in seeing this terrific film, you’re in luck. The Most Dangerous Game has fallen into public domain, meaning that there are no longer any legitimate rights holders. It can be viewed legally and for free here on YouTube. The Most Dangerous Game is highly recommended.