Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there was a time when you couldn’t get through too much schooling without encountering the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” at some point. Much like Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” which I was assigned to read by at least five different teachers and professors, I read Richard Connell’s story multiple times in multiple English classes. Since the story is such a simple and basic one (and that’s not a knock on its quality), it was natural for it to be adapted as a film, and natural for it to show up not too long after the story’s original publication. Connell got the story published in 1924; the movie version of The Most Dangerous Game showed up in 1932.
My guess is that you know the basics, and while the names have changed a little in terms of the characters (as well as some changes in gender), this is a pretty solid adaptation of the original story. Big game hunter, author, and adventurer Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is sailing with companions off the coast of South America when the ship, thanks to nefariously-meddled with channel lights, is wrecked. Several die in the crash and a few others are dragged off by sharks, but Bob makes it to a nearby island where he discovers a large house inhabited by a number of mute men and a Russian count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Bob is greeted and given a room and also introduced to two other guests, the brother/sister pair of Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray).
We soon learn a couple of things. First, Zaroff considers himself a great hunter and knows of Bob’s reputation. Second, it’s soon evident that Martin is a drunk and is far too fond of Zaroff’s vodka. Third, importantly, Eve believes there is something terrible happening on the island. She and her brother were also shipwrecked, and had with them a couple of sailors who survived. Both of them have vanished over the last few days. Eve tells Bob that both of the sailors were invited to see Zaroff’s trophy room as a precursor to a hunting expedition, and neither have been seen since.
This is a minor spoiler, although the revelation comes at around the halfway point and my guess is that you know the twist here already anyway. Zaroff, bored with hunting normal prey, has decided that the only real challenge comes from hunting men. This is what has happened to the two sailors and also what happens to Martin Trowbridge midway through the film. Bob and Eve discover this when they break into the trophy room and see not animals, but men. Zaroff is convinced that Bob, as a hunter, will understand but Bob is naturally repulsed by this concept. That means that the second half of the film will be Zaroff hunting Bob and Eve with her as the prize for victory…how progressive. It’s worth noting that Eve is a character who doesn’t exist in the original story. It’s also worth noting that while Zaroff believes that she is the spoils that belong to the victor, this is not an opinion that Bob seems to support despite the obvious attraction between the two of them. That’s especially true of the way Fay Wray’s Eve looks at Joel McCrea, one of the true pleasures of this sort of pre-Code thriller.
The Most Dangerous Game is a fun film and it’s intended to be not a great deal more than a thriller designed to do exactly what it does—provide a little bit of a jolt for the audience and, based on the time and the stereotypes of the time, cause men’s dates to clutch onto them during the running time of the film. Honestly, it does a pretty good job of this, and as an early thriller with some horror overtones, it’s right on the money.
For as much as Joel McCrea is the clear hero here and for as much as a lot of the plot seems to depend on the clear sexual tension between him and Fay Wray (who was always a delightful scream queen), it is Leslie Banks who makes this movie work at all. Virtually anyone with the right physique could be put in McCrea’s role, and while I do love Wray, any ingénue worth her salt could handle her part. Banks was wounded in World War I, giving him prominent scars and some paralysis on the left side of his face. In The Most Dangerous Game, he uses this to be as menacing as possible. He is a chilling and terrible villain, and he makes the whole damn movie work.
In fact, my only complaint is the length. At just 63 minutes, this feels like an appetizer. I can’t actually see where it could or should be extended, but I’d love for this to run 20 more minutes.
Even so, The Most Dangerous Game casts a big shadow over the genre of survival films. The story has been made over and over again (including a version called Bloodlust that showed up on Mystery Science Theater 3000), but there are echoes of this film in movies as diverse as Deliverance and Predator. If for no other reason, see it for that.
Why to watch The Most Dangerous Game: A solid, influential version of a true classic story.
Why not to watch: At 63 minutes, it’s not long enough.