Old School Reviews  


Grade B-Most Dangerous Game, The (1932)

Director: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Stars: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Schoedsack: The Most Dangerous Game


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With all the hype about Hannibal Lecter and serial killers coming with an ill-advised Red Dragon soon to be released (senseless since Manhunter is so well done), it's a great be time to revisit the first serial killer brought to the silver screen. Filmed at the same time and on the same set as King Kong, David O. Selznik's 1932 production of The Most Dangerous Game goes beyond the commonly anthologized Richard Connell short story of the same title. Most of us read Connell's version in elementary school or junior high—a simple adventure story with a life-and-death contest between two men and a gigantic plot twist. Although the basic story remains recognizable, James Ashmore Creelman's screenplay develops deeper themes of madness, simultaneously mixing in sexual overtones.

The film is tightly constructed and fast moving; within five minutes the ship inevitably crashes on the rocks and main character Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) establishes the basic story premise—the contest between the hunter and the hunted and how he has never experienced the point of view of the hunted. Naturally, that is to change.

Ivan (Noble Johnson), a deaf mute Russian Cossack, pulls Rainsford from the shark-infested waters and brings him to Count Zaroff's (Leslie Banks) foreboding castle dwelling. Zaroff is one strange dude, continually dropping double entendre quips and melodramatically looking at his guests with a measure of disdain or lust. Not so with Rainsford, who is regarded as a kindred spirit, due to his hunting adventure writings.

Although he looks lustfully at his lady guest, Zaroff's main passion is hunting. He had become bored with hunting lions and jaguars—until discovering the "most dangerous game" on this small island. His passions renewed and energized, he fully expects Rainsford to join with him. Zaroff makes pointed remarks about how males must fulfill their blood lust during the hunt, before turning their thoughts to love (looking longingly at his female guest). This is an added aspect that Connell never explored in the original short story, but the adventure tale remains straight-forward and simple.

Two of the actors play in both The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong—the brother and sister pair Martin and Eve are played by Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray respectively. (They were able to do both films because King Kong was more elaborate and required a great deal of downtime to work in the special effects, so shooting schedules were worked out easily.) The stripped-down Most Dangerous Game runs barely over an hour, making for an economical shoot and relatively frenetic pace—one of the film's major strengths.

Exciting for 1932 audiences (shocking with images of decapitated human heads), the film relentlessly speeds through the plot with some good camera work. You'll recognize the tracking shot through the jungle set as the wide-eyed Zaroff tracks his prey—it's often clipped when demonstrating historic moments in film history. Take note also of Zaroff's final fall at the end of the film, as it foreshadows King Kong's future dive from the Empire State Building.

The Criterion Collection has preserved this film on DVD with a mildly interesting background commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. Although it's not the most artistic film from the period, The Most Dangerous Game mostly interests for its use of the King Kong set and its tightly constructed narrative structure. Some modern lightweight films could learn a cinematic lesson from directors Irving Pichel and Ernest Schoedshack's sixty-three-minute running time: When a film doesn't have enough material to warrant stretching it to ninety minutes, let it finish at its own proper pace. Don't expect Red Dragon to heed the lessons taught by the original cinematic serial killer.

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