Like millions of other public school students of the last fifty years or so, I had to read Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game," at some point during my school days. In fact, this one is probably still on the required reading lists in some schools. If memory serves, I read it sometime while I was in junior high. Unlike most of the crap that we had to read, I loved this one. The story, in case you've missed it, concerns a man shipwrecked on a mysterious island where he is hunted as game by the madman who lives there. I loved it! It was a terrific adventure story, a page-turner of the highest order and a story that I re-read on my own several times over the years.
The film version, which I watched again yesterday for the first time in over ten years, is one of the greatest pulp adventure movies ever made. With a running time of 62 minutes, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), is a textbook example of economical storytelling, wasting no time in setting up the basic situation (there's not an ounce of fat or flab anywhere) and then executing it with brilliant style and a headlong pace. The narrative moves like a bullet from start to finish taking both the characters in the film and the viewer on a wild, unforgettable ride of danger and excitement.
Joel McCrea stars as big game hunter and writer Bob Rainsford who is world-renowned for his hunting skills and abilities. The story opens with Rainsford and some of his hunting buddies aboard a ship that is lured into a dangerous channel by two buoy lights, lights that have been deliberately misplaced in order to wreck ships. The ship sinks, killing everyone except Bob who swims to a nearby island. There he discovers the castle of the mysterious Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Russian aristocrat with a couple of Cossack henchman, Ivan (Noble Johnson) and Tartar (Steve Clemente), to do his bidding.
Zaroff is also playing host to brother and sister Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray) Trowbridge. Martin is a loud-mouthed, good-hearted drunk, content to remain on the island and be wined and dined by Zaroff. But the fetching Eve knows that something is not right. Rainsford and Zaroff exchange dialogue about their respective philosophies of hunting and it becomes obvious that Zaroff has something sinister in mind for Rainsford.
Zaroff has decided that having hunted and killed almost every wild animal on the face of the earth, the only prey left that can give him a real challenge is man. He plans to set Rainsford and Eve loose into the jungle with a several hours head start and armed only with a knife, before he begins stalking them with a bow and arrow at first, and later, a rifle.
The hunt takes place on a series of magnificent sets, enhanced by several glass paintings. It's clearly not a real jungle or island but that's what makes this film work as marvelously as it does. It's a jungle that could exist only in the imagination, in a dream, in the pages of a cheap pulp magazine. Everything is brought to wonderful, vivid and thrilling life during the hunting sequence which climaxes with a fight to the death back at Zaroff's castle.
McCrea, with his torn shirts, is a ringer for Doc Savage and would have made a perfectly respectable Man of Bronze if a film version of that pulp hero had been made in the 1930s. In fact, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME served as inspiration to Savage scribe Lester Dent for the super-saga entitled THE FANTASTIC ISLAND (December 1935). Fay Wary is simply ravishing and Armstrong is full of bluff bravado. But it's Banks who steals the show as Zaroff. He seems to be channelling Bela Lugosi at times with his mad stares and posh evening dress. He constantly fingers a nasty scar on his forehead and eyes McCrea with a look of outright lust, passion and desire. Next to Ernest Thesiger's portrayal of Dr. Pretorious in James Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), Zaroff ranks as one of the great gay villains of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Credit for the brilliance of MOST DANGEROUS GAME goes to two men: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. If those names sound familiar, they're also the geniuses (along with Willis O'Brien), who produced KING KONG (1933) at RKO studios at the same time. While KONG was in production during the daytime, GAME was filmed at night on the standing KONG jungle sets. That's getting the most for your money. Armstrong and Wray of course, also co-starred in KONG and the immortal Max Steiner provided scores for both films.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME has served as the basis for countless other films and television shows and it will continue to serve as inspiration for filmmakers and storytellers to come. But no one has ever done it nor will ever do it better than this original version.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is quite simply a masterpiece.