The Most Dangerous Game (1932) dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Joel McRae, Fay Wray,
This largely unheralded film from the early 30’s is essential viewing for cinephiles. “The Most Dangerous” is an adventure film about a man and woman who get shipwrecked on a remote Pacific Island inhabited by a maniacal Russian aristocrat who hunts human victims for sport. A myriad of remakes, copycats and borrowers have reduced the power and suspense of the film, but when put into proper context, it’s still is a highly enjoyable film. And at the very least you can see the seeds of the next film for this filmmaking team – “King Kong”.
Like “King Kong”, director Schoedsack opens his film on a boat, traveling the treacherous Pacific Ocean. A group of game hunters are returning home from a hunting trip, when they are lured off their path to an uncharted island. They hit a reef and sink their boat. The only survivor is Bob Rainsford. Bob is given shelter by Russian emigrant Count Zaroff and his Rasputin-like henchman, Ivan. Zaroff’s false hospitality is peppered with a sinister ulterior motive. Along with Bob are two other guests from another misguided expedition – siblings Eve and Martin Trowbridge (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong).
When Martin disappears, Bob and Eve learn about Zaroff’s sick hobby – hunting real humans in the wild for sport. Bob and Eve are given weapons and released into the island jungle with a head start before Zaroff and his hunting party tracks them down. But Bob is no ordinary game. He proves a worthy adversary as he creates a series of traps that make Zaroff’s hunt the most dangerous yet. The hunter-vs.-hunter battle ends with a hand to hand fight in his castle before Bob and Eve finally win their freedom.
Before Eve and Bob are released and the adventure begins we are subject to a largely painful set up consisting of the most unsubtle metaphors of Social Darwinism. Before reaching the island Rainford’s proclaims his superiority saying, “This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that.” A tad on the nose. Things get interesting once the scene-chewing Count Zaloff enters the picture. He is a wonderful noble bad-guy with a sense of gamesmanship and honour (imagine Hans Gruber meets Mr. Burns). My favourite moment is the crash dolly down the staircase when he Martin says to Eve “Don't worry. The Count will take care of me.” The camera ends its sweeping move with Zaloff’s line “Indeed I shall.”
Once the adventure begins on the island (approximately the midway point), we get to see Schoedsack’s skills at ‘in-the-wild’ filmmaking. Many of the jungle sets were reused for “King Kong” and the special matting photography gives us an utterly believable lifelike environment. The chase continues for most of the second half and is well executed and edited as an early classic Hollywood action sequence.
Some other interesting significances of the film is the presence of a young David O Selznick as producer, Max Steiner who composes one of his earliest and best music scores (and uncredited as well!). And the film has key significance in David Fincher’s 2007 film, “Zodiac”. “The Most Dangerous Game” figures prominently as a piece of evidence in the case against the famed 70’s serial killer. Watching “Zodiac” having seen “The Most Dangerous Game” actually makes the film more enjoyable.
For good and bad, “The Most Dangerous Game” is a public domain film, which means anyone with access to a professional quality tape anyone can create a DVD and sell the film. It appears Legend Films has done just this. The disc is marketed as the first release of the colourized version, which of course, is blasphemy to cinephiles, but thankfully they also include the original black and white version. Unfortunately both versions are not as crisp as the Criterion version released several years ago and the atrocious DVD menu screen which looks like a video game is an insult to the film. The colourization was supervised by Ray Harryhausen, which doesn’t add enough credibility to make it right. The interviews with Harryhausen and a couple other scholars add a few good insights, but I recommend watching the Peter Jackson documentary on Universal box set of the 1933 “King Kong” film for a better analysis of the film.
But these are all peripheries for film buffs. The film and content prevail as an important benchmark of cinema. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Most Dangerous Game
Mind the French music accompanying this clip, it’s all I could find: