Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Richard Connell’s story The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed countless times, with some of the odder and more interesting movie versions being Michel Lemoine’s 1976 Les Week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff (released in the US as Seven Women for Satan) and Herb Stanley’s completely off-the-wall 1968 Confessions of a Psycho Cat. The first movie version though was the 1932 US one, from the production team responsible for Kong Kong (and filmed using some of the same sets).

Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks in full-on scenery chewing mode) is a big game hunter in need of ever greater thrills. Tigers just aren’t dangerous enough. Finally he realises that the only cure for his ennui is to stalk the most dangerous game of all - man! He lures ships onto the reef near his island, and hunts down the survivors. His greatest challenge comes when fate delivers to him his most worthy prey yet - another celebrated big game hunter, Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea).

This is a pre-code movie, and it shows. There is clearly a sexual element to Count Zaroff’s sport. He makes it plain that the hunt whets his appetite for sex, and that after successfully killing Ransford he will claim the reward for a successful hunt by raping Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray), another victim of the Count’s shipwrecking activities. He makes it equally obvious that his is his usual practice. Women are simply a different kind of prey. And although the Count would have us believe that the hunt merely adds spice to his sexual diet, one can’t help suspecting that the hunt may in fact be an essential element, that he may in fact be impotent without the excitement of the kill. There’s also the suggestion that Eve is to offered as a prize to Rainsford, should he survive the game.

Like most American genre movies of its era it’s all but ruined by some incredibly feeble, annoying and wholly inappropriate comic relief, provided by the excruciatingly unfunny Robert Armstrong. Despite this considerable drawback, and some hamminess in the acting department, the movie works and delivers some genuine thrills and chills. The climactic hunt occupies most of the second half of this very short movie (running just over an hour) and once the hunt begins the excitement doesn’t let up.

The hints of sexual depravity make this more than a mere thriller, and while Leslie Banks goes way over the top as Zaroff it has to be admitted that he’s truly creepy and quite scary, and totally crazed. Fay Wray gets to scream, and Joel McCrea is reasonably effective. Overall it’s a good example of a pre-code horror/adventure film and it’s been so immensely influential that it’s really a must-see for any fans of those genres.

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