Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Shoedsack, 1932) The year before releasing King Kong, the team that made that film (with some slight changes in personnel) made this pre-Code adaptation of Richard Connell's classic "The Most Dangerous Game." Connell's story is spare (you can read it in the hidden link in the title), and it has been expanded in the adaptation by James Ashmore Creelman (he also worked on Kong) to include more characters (demonstrating the dire nature of the situation, but also making it less credible and more susceptible to detection that "something's up" from the "outside" world).  

But, the basic structure of the story is the same: Rainsford (Joel McCrea)—in the story his name is Sanger, in the film he's just plain "Bob"*—is a big game hunter on a yacht with friends in the midst of a hunting trip. The ship hits a reef, explodes and the crew are eaten by sharks (interesting sequence, that). Only Bob survives and is washed up on the island of Baranka, the home of the Russian Baron Zaroff (Leslie Banks). He is found and brought to the Baron's rather creepy stone "lair" and made welcome. 
The Baron has ambitious goals.
The Baron is a genial, if rather forboding host, and is particularly interested when he recognizes Rainsford, as he is one of the most storied big game hunters on the planet, and Zaroff fancies himself of equal or greater stature. The two have much in common, discussing the blood-sport and the difficulties in bringing to ground various prey. 
Wait a minute, isn't that?, no, that's next year...
But Rainsford is not the only guest. In the biggest departure from the story, there are other castaways from shipwrecks there, as well—Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray). It's still prohibition and Martin is making short work of the Baron's stores of alcohol—he's on a perpetual toot. And Eve is the only woman there, and although she's very cagey about disclosing anything, suspects that something is very, very wrong on the island of Baranka. For instance, there were two sailors with she and Martin, but they have gone missing, never to return. There's also the strange man-servant and the blood-thirsty dogs. And then there's the basement, a tour from which few return.

What is going on?

Well, if you haven't figured it out yet, you haven't seen a lot of movies, or are so familiar with what has become something of a trope in films and television, it may hold no surprises or cause a thought that it might be unusual.  But it does lead up to a sustained set-piece with man (and woman) versus man in a jungle hunt. And where Connell's story dripped with irony and a macabre wit, there's not much evidence of it in the filmed version, despite efforts to increase the "ick" factor (a lot of which went missing when the Hays Code came into effect...and when preview audiences ran out of the theater).  

Now the film is a curiosity, not only for its relationship to Kong (which was filmed about the same time with many of the sets used in both films) and for its none-too-subtle forays into the horror field. Still, for what it is, it's nicely acted by McCrea, Wray, and the superbly creepy Banks who has a lazer-like stare that rivaled Lugosi's. Two years later, he would star as Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (British version), as the father of a child kidnapped by terrorists to keep him silent about a planned political assassination. But, here he's "the bad guy" and he's as effective as he is in more heroic roles for other directors. He's a revelation and a powerful presence, quite more than the original character in the story's.

For those playing along with "The Game," some ads had a convenient map.

* With a name like "Bob" no wonder he survived the ship-wreck (Ooooh...sorry).

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