Wednesday, 30 March 2016
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)
In 1932, the RKO studio waded into the horror genre with The Most Dangerous Game, a reliable Hollywood plot that would be remade many times over the decades, based on a short story by Richard Edward Connell. The film itself made good use of recycling as its sets and some of the cast were to be reused shortly after for the awesome King Kong.
Mixing a sinister atmosphere with action-thriller overtones, the film details the evil game played by an insane Russian Count (Leslie Banks) who ensnares ship-wreck survivors onto his island in order to hunt them to death for his own sickening sport. It’s a pleasing, fat-free 62 minutes of perverse fun, plunging us almost literally into a prologue for our hero Joel McCrea (later achieving fame with Sullivan’s Travels and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent). McCrea is Bob Rainsford, a handsome, none-too cerebral big-game hunter and writer devoid of sympathy for the creatures he hunts. Controversially, he claims in recounting one adventure to his friends on board a ship that his quarry, conveniently anthropomorphised, enjoyed the sport as much as he did: “As a matter of fact, we admired each other” - (forgetting the small matter of the disparity between each sides’ resources for one thing). Rainsford sees society as made up of either being the hunter or the hunted – and soon he will get to test that hypothesis from the other side.
Using excellent model-work, the ship is wrecked by the coral reefs the party were warned about by the Captain. We see some of Rainsford’s friends picked off by opportunistic sharks, already proving his point, while he is washed ashore on an island as the sole survivor. He makes his way to a chateau, observing that the shore lights have now changed. Something macabre is afoot, a feeling amplified by the chilling knocker on the iron door of a figure cradling a woman, whether captive or saved damsel we do not know - but the arrow piercing his chest foreshadows mortal combat to come.
Rainsford finds himself accepted immediately as the house-guest of Count Zaroff, the aforementioned noble, an elegant émigré of the Russian Revolution. Banks enjoys himself in the role, channelling his English suavity into a Russian (and occasional Scottish?) no doubt picked up in his classical stage work which would lead him to Olivier’s film of Henry V in 1944. Zaroff’s warm sense of hospitality clashes with an odd intense stare, matched only by that of his mute cossack man-servant Ivan (Noble Johnson). A welcome glimmer of dark humour is offered when Zaroff bullies Ivan into smiling for his new guest. The hench-man’s mouth cracks into an oddball grin totally at odds with the fierce eyes above them.
Rainsford discovers he is not the only stranger in a strange land. Four other survivors of a previous wreck have been taken in - in more ways than one. They include Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong as siblings Martin and Eve Trowbridge, biding their time till they play heroine Ann Darrow and the great showman Carl Denham respectively in King Kong. Armstrong distinguises (and extinguishes) himself as Martin, a nouveau-riche lush whose permanently-sozzled state allows him to be late-night fodder for Zaroff’s merciless gaming. Eve and Rainsford stumble across his body brought back by their host, and are made an offer they can’t refuse – to be give the chance to escape pursuit across the island - “No bigger than a deer park”. If they can avoid capture by dawn, they will be set free. In Zaroff’s world, the most dangerous game is not the animal but the human…
The scene is set for an engrossing last act game of cat-and-mouse whereby all of Rainsford’s experience at setting animal traps is easily dodged by the supremely confident Zaroff across lushly-furnished jungle sets. The hunter begins his hunt firing from a Tartar War Bow he is proud of, evading a falling log-trap and mocking the twosome playfully in his fetching black Milk Tray cat-burglar rollneck. When a fog rolls in, the cheating swine cannot resist increasing the home advantage further by switching to a high-powered telescopic rifle and then unleashing his hounds after the couple. The Hounds of Zaroff incidentally was the UK title for the picture. King Kong fans will recognise the log across the ravine that would figure in a memorable fight scene in that movie. Chased up a tree, Rainsford sees the slavering dogs below and grows enough of a sudden conscience to ruefully observe of his former sport’s victims: “I know how they feel…”
Finally, Zaroff gets his comeuppance in battle after thinking his attack pooches have dispatched Rainsford off a cliff. Even at the last dying breath, he tries in vain to still be the big game-hunter.
The Most Dangerous Game benefits from its lean construction and execution by Ernest P Schoedsack as writer and co-director with Irving Pichel. It discards any leaden back-story or sub-plots, eschewing for example any pace-killing romance between Rainsford and Eve that would tempt other film-makers, to make a horror thriller that travels light and plays entertainingly with the dark side...