The Most Dangerous Game (1932) Pinchel & Schoedsack

“Hunt first the enemy, then the woman.” Count Zaroff

 

The Most Dangerous Game is a film with a split personality; we are first introduced to the strange dark twisted personality of the Russian Count Zaroff… In the second half, we have an exciting stylishly filmed, well-paced action chase. There is also a Max Steiner score, which contributes immensely to the moody atmosphere. Background music in film was still rare at this time so this was somewhat groundbreaking. Steiner did the music for both this film and King Kong. Also, contributing to the film’s style is the exquisite art direction, including some very weird ornate door knockers and a strange direct from hell large mural on wall. All this evoking the peculiar sinister personality of the host.

  The story involves big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck run afoul in shallow waters. He finds himself on a small island and comes upon a creepy fortress that is the home to Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Zaroff invites Rainsford to stay and later that evening introduces him to two other guests Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her brother Martin (Robert Armstrong) also recently stranded along with two sailors from a previous shipwreck.      

    Learning that Rainsford is a big game hunter, the Count begins to tell of his passion for hunting and how recently he has become bored with hunting just animals.  Now he has become interested in what he calls “The Most Dangerous Game.”

    “You mean tigers?” Rainsford asked, to which the count replies no.

    Later that evening, Eve takes Rainsford aside and secretly tells him how she suspects something strange is going on. The two sailors have vanished after seeing Zaroff’s trophy room.  Rainsford is skeptical about Eve’s assumptions refusing to pursue it any further. Later that night, Eve’s brother, Martin whose had been drinking heavily and being obnoxious, disappears.

 

Rainsford and Eve begin to search the fortress for Martin stumbling upon Zaroff’s trophy room they discover a man’s head mounted on a wall and another’s inside a jar. These scenes were startling back in 1934 and are still shocking today.  Zaroff with his two henchmen enter the room carrying Martin’s covered body on a stretcher. When Eve recognizes that it’s Martin, she starts hitting Zaroff on his chest. He orders one of the Cossacks to take her away. Lifting her up one the goon carries her off screaming in a scene that turns reminiscent of Kong carrying Anne Darrow off into the jungle (the famous Fay Wray scream!). Disappointed that Rainsford is unsympathetic to his new “game” him a madman., Zaroff decides that Rainsford will be his next prey and the survivor gets Eve.. Come midnight, Rainsford will be given a knife, a head start and a promise that if he can survive until dawn, he will be free to leave unharmed. Of course, The Count reminds him that no one has ever survived until dawn. The Count always gets his game.

   The second half of the film is a true classic with some of the most exciting and excellent scenes ever put on film. Given a head start, Rainsford and Eve go off deep into the foggy swampy forest. At one point Rainsford and Eve are chased up a tree by dogs, Rainsford for the first time understanding what animals feel like when being hunted. Eventually Rainsford and Eve are cornered near a waterfall. Zaroff sends in one of his dogs to attack Rainsford, then aiming his rifle, he shoots and we see both Rainsford and the dog fall into the water.

Zaroff takes Eve, back to his fortress where he plans to enjoy his new trophy, only to soon discover that Rainsford is alive and the dog was shot.

    Top acting honors go to Leslie Banks best known for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  Banks nicely blends sophistication and terror into the strange immoral personality of Zaroff.  Joel McCrea, with his all-American good looks,  performs well in some scenes though managing to look somewhat stiff in others, while Fay Wray is not given much to do other than be by McCrea’s side and look good, which she does well.   

    “The Most Dangerous Game” has an interesting back-story. Based on the ell known short story by Richard Connell the film was simultaneously filmed with “King Kong.” Both films had Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson (Ivan the Cossack) in the cast. The actors were able to do the two films at the same time due to the time consuming special effects of Kong, which left them with free periods where they could work on one film and then the other. You may also notice that some of the same sets were used for both films, especially in the chase scenes at the end; even some of the “screams” may sound familiar. “The Most Dangerous Game” was originally budgeted at approximately four hundred thousand dollars, a healthy amount for its time. However due financial problems at RKO the budget was reduced to a little more than two hundred thousand, which necessitated some cost cutting, and eliminating scenes especially at the beginning of the film, the ship scenes and the sinking where everything happens rather quickly.

    As usually happens there are differences between the source material and the film, for example in the short story, there is no shipwreck. Rainsford accidentally falls overboard when he investigates a far off gunshot he heard. There is also no female character in Connell’s story, which may account for Fay Wray’s character being little more than ornamental for most of the film. The short story is pretty much a one on one confrontation between Zaroff and Rainsford.

    This was the first adaptation of Connell’s story, which if you are interested in reading is available free online. The film has been remade officially and unofficially over the years. In 1945, Robert Wise directed “A Game of Death” where the Zaroff character was changed to a more current hate figure that of a Nazi officer. RKO even used some of the same footage from the 1932 film. In 1952, there was “Run for the Sun” with Richard Widmark and Jane Greer. Other unofficial remakes with a similar thematic concept include “Surviving the Game,” “Bloodlust,” “Hard Target” and “Open Season” (1974). The film’s influence is even felt in David Finchers 2007 film “Zodiac” when Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith  identifies quotes from “The Most Dangerous Game” when reading letters sent into the newspaper by the killer.

 

 

Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel

    “Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel” is probably as close, as we will ever get to an autobiography from Al Pacino. This series of interviews taken over a thirty-year period covers Pacino’s youth and his career including his thoughts and ideas on the life of an actor. Pacino comes across as a dedicated actor who is still in love with the theater. He discusses how he creates, prepares and researches for a role. He talks in detail about the movies he been in, fame and even goes on in depth about the films he’s directed and how he finds them hard to let go.

    . He discusses his being famously reluctant for doing interviews and he tells a story about reading a biography of Montgomery Clift and then watching “A Place in the Sun” and how he became so fascinated with the guy he read about that he was distracted from his performance and the film itself. And that what he is trying to preserve. Keeping the character pure by not revealing too much about yourself.

    For those looking for the latest Entertainment Tonight type gossip they will be highly disappointed. For those looking for a serious actor discussing the craft of acting and the life of an actor, well then you came to the right place.

    A must read.

Three Films by D.W. Griffith

The Fugitive (1910)

 

“The Fugitive” is the story of two young men both named John. One is a Confederate soldier, the other Union. Both are preparing to leave home and go to war. The movie’s theme is the pain war causes to mothers and loved ones no matter what side they are on. Union John shoots and kills Rebel John in battle and after a chase ends up hiding in the home of the mother of the man, he just killed.  Not knowing this is the man who killed her John she nurses him back to health. Later on, she learns the truth and almost sends him out of the house to what would have most certainly been his death before the hands of the Confederates. However, the mother does not want this boy’s mother to experience the tragedy and pain she has had to endure so she continues to conceal him until the coast is clear for him to leave. The Union soldier eventually returns back home to his mother safely. The film holds your interest and is notable for the recurring “brother vs. brother” theme that shows up in some of Griffith’s other works, however, this is not one of  his best.  

 

 

 

 

The Girl and Her Trust (1912)

 

Made in 1912 The Girl and Her Trust is a good “action” film from D.W. Griffith. The story concerns Grace (Dorothy Bernard) a telegraph operator who is also in charge of the money. This in itself is surprising for a woman to have this kind of responsibility during this period.  A payroll of $2000 is put in her trust. Two railroad tramps attempt to break into the office and steal the money. But Grace in no damsel in distress and takes her  job very seriously locking the inner door to the office. She even puts a bullet in the keyhole and using a scissors somehow, and unbelievably, manages to make it go off scaring the two tramps! She then sends a telegraph message asking for help. Still the two men manage to get the strongbox and load it on to a railroad handcar. But Grace isn’t finished yet. She chases after them and jumps onto the handcar attempting to fight the two men. They however, over power her. One of the men, after she’s thrown down  is actually punching her. The telegraph message sent earlier worked and help is on the way. The chase between the railroad train and the handcar is well done with Griffith using parallel editing to go back and forth between the train and the handcar. In the end the two tramps are caught and Grace in saved.

Griffith was known for his use of parallel editing but there are mistakes, specifically the train that sometime seems to be coming from both directions in different shots and not consisting going say right to left. On the positive side Grace is a strong female character which shows that not all women at the time were portrayed as helpless victims.   

 

 

 

 

A Beast at Bay (1912)

 

Mary Pickford stars in this Griffith short from 1912, which concerns a young woman who feels her boyfriend is a coward. In a parallel, story a convict has escaped from prison. On the lam he steals a guard s clothes and gun. Eventually, Mary and the convict meet and it’s up to the boyfriend to save her. A nice little film but nothing special.

 

The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson

     Humphrey Bogart in his last film plays is of work sportswriter Eddie Willis who lets himself be hired by crooked fight promoter, Nick Benko, helping him exploit giant Argentine boxer, Turo Moreno, who cannot punch his way out of a paper bag. Benko fixed all the fights that is until the championship match, where the current champ, Buddy Brannen, (Max Baer) promises to beat Turo to a pulp.

      Bogart, in this his last film before he died about a year or so later of cancer. He looks worn down and much older than the 57 or so years  he was at the time, but Bogie gives us once last great performance. Rod Steiger who gave an Oscar winning performance as a corrupt waterfront hood in “On the Waterfront” gives another terrific performance here as the crooked fight promoter, Benko. Jan Sterling plays Bogie’s wife who watches as he wavers with he own inner struggles on right and wrong and finally walks out on him. The cast also includes Nehemiah Persoff, and Harold J. Stone.

     “The Harder They Fall” is a tough look at the way, the Boxing racket was, corrupt and dirty. The film spares nothing.  The final boxing match between Brannen and Moreno is equally brutal to anything in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The film was based on a novel by Budd Shulberg who also has to his credits the story and screenplay for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” among others. Burnett Guffey’s gritty black and white photography evokes the slimy bleak atmosphere of the boxing world.    Shulberg, based his character, Moreno on Primo Canera, the 6 foot 8 inch Italian boxer,  whose manager Lou Soresi, not only stole most of Canera’s money leaving him broke, he was also connected to prohibition underworld figure Owney Madden that, led to rumors over the years that many of Canera’s fights were fixed.  In real life just like in the film, Max Baer who played Buddy Brannen, beat up Canera so brutally, his career was essentially finished. Also, look for Jersey Joe Walcott in a small role.  

    According to Wikipedia, “The Harder They Fall” has two different endings. In the DVD version, Eddie Willis demands that boxing be banned while in the second version, a softer ending that is usually broadcast on TV Eddie just suggests that boxing be banned.

More than fifty years after its release the film still hits you will a strong right to the gut.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton

 
 

 

“Beware of false prophets that come in sheep’s clothing…………
It is a shame Charles Laughton never directed another film. Not many first time filmmakers are as impressive as this the first time out. “The Night of the Hunter” is a dark atmospheric thriller that grips you like a vise and never let’s go. The screenplay written by famed film critic and writer James Agee and Charles Laughton, who received no screen credit, was based on a novel of the same name. The novel used a true life incident as the basis for the story. Agee is known for his book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, ignored when first published, and is now considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In the 1940’s Agee began work as a film critic for the magazine “The Nation” and wrote his first screenplay, “The African Queen” in 1951 based on C.S. Forester’s novel. “The Night of the Hunter” was his second screenplay. Laughton, of course, was already a successful actor in such movies as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “Rembrandt,” “The Big Clock” and so many others. The film is beautifully and richly photographed by Stanley Cortez. Cortez other works include “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and two Sam Fuller films, “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss”. Cortez was also the Cinematographer on the 1991 TV movie remake of “The Night of the Hunter” which starred Richard Chamberlain.

The film was not a hit with critics or the public at the time of its release and did not win any awards or even receive any nominations. Laughton who made one of the best expressionistic film noirs never directed another film .
 

 

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is sentenced to hang for his part in a bank robbery and the killing of two people. Before being picked up by the law Harper hides the stolen money at his home and gets his two young children to promise not to reveal where the money is hidden to no one. While in prison, Harper meets the self anointed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to get Harper to reveal where he has hidden the money. Believing that Harper told his two kids, John and Pearl, where the money is, Powell, upon his release makes his way to Harpers home where he woos Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s gullible widow, and the whole town. The one person who is not won over by the hell preaching reverend is young John. Powell marries Willa but rejects her sexually telling her that her body is only for “begettin’ children.” Eventually convinced that Willa does not know where the money is he kills her in a superbly composed and horrifying ritualistic bedroom sacrificial scene. As she lies in bed, he raises his hand; the one with LOVE tattooed on his fingers, and comes down toward her plunging the knife into her. Being 1995, this is off screen. Not getting anywhere with the two young children on confessing where the money is hidden he begins to lose his patience locking them in the cellar. John and Pearl manage to escape and runaway traveling along the river eventually making their way to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) a woman who takes in wayward children. In these scenes, the film takes on a more lyrical fairy tale twist. Powell goes out in search of the children and eventually finds them but Rachel, unlike most adults before her, sees through the phony preacher. After a tense night and a confrontation, Rachel calls the police and they arrest Powell. The town people rise up and demand justice forming a lynch mob led by Walt and Elsie Spoon (the luncheonette owners where Willa worked). The police take Powell out the back door of the jail to escape the mob transporting him to somewhere safer as Rachel Cooper gathers all her kids to get them out of harms way. The film ends with a homey Christmas scene at Rachel’s place.
There’s one scene that takes place in the luncheonette where Willa worked. It takes place after Powell killed her. To cover up for her disappearance Powell is telling Walt and Icey Spoon that Willa ran off leaving her children and him behind. The couple try to console him and at one point Walt tells him don’t worry, she’ll come back. Powell, sitting at the counter, head hanging down replies “She’ll not be back I reckon I can promise you that.” As he finishes the last few words his eyes are raised upward and there’s the most chilling evil sinister look on his face. A wonderful piece of acting by Mitchum that has stuck with me and even sent a chill down my spine.

Other wonderful scenes include the discovery of Willa’s body at the bottom of the lake; the cellar scenes where the two kids are hiding are some of the most gripping in the film and the entire sequence with the two kids going down the river. There’s also a visually stunning scene of Powell riding on horseback as he pursues the kids shot completely in silhouette. The list just goes on. It is difficult to believe that Cortez was not recognized for his work on this film. I found the scenes with Rachel Cooper, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s work and Laughton may have intentionally done that, or maybe it is just me associating Gish with Griffith.

The only disappointing part of the film was the ending, which seems a little forced and frankly, it is unbelievable that nosey bodies Walt and Icey Spoon are the type to lead an angry lynch mob of town folks who felt betrayed by the deceptive Powell.

Today most agree that Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances in this film. The entire cast is good but Mitchum is superb. He is the personification of evil dressed in the Lord’s clothing. With the letters spelling out LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers he preaches the word of the Lord while stealing and killing his way toward hell. As most film lovers know a few years, later Mitchum would create another memorable villain, Max Cady, in the 1962 version of “Cape Fear.”

 
 

 

 

 

A Tribute to Evelyn Keyes

    Evelyn Keyes passed away on July 4th. Best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister, Suellen,  in “Gone with the Wind” she also had prominent roles in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Johnny O’Clock,” “Ladies in Retirement” and  “The Jolson Story”. She never made it to the top, never quite getting the role that would have put her in the stratosphere of Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. She eventually became more famous for her private life than her professional one. Four marriages, which included  directors Charles Vidor and John Houston along with bandleader Artie Shaw all ended in divorce. In her 1977 autobiography Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister she comments on affairs she had  with Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, David Niven plus a three-year affair with Mike Todd who would leave her for Elizabeth Taylor. This was during the period when Todd was developing “Around the World in 80 Days.” Evelyn was smart enough to invest in the film and admits that it set up her for life. Her last notable film was a small role as Tom Ewell’s wife in “The Seven Year Itch.”

     She was a versatile enough actress proving herself capable of doing comedy (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and noir style crime films like “99 River Street” and, “Johnny O’Clock.” Lesser known films but worth checking out are “The Prowler” with Van Heflin, “The Killer That Stalked New York”  and “The Face Behind the Mask” with Peter Lorre. All three films are tough to find but worth seeking out.  

 

  

 

  

Recommended Films:

 

Gone With the Wind

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

99 River Street

Johnny O’Clock

The Prowler

The Jolson Story

The Face Behind the Mask

The Killer That Stalked New York

                                                     

 

 

 

 

 

Army of Shadows (1969) Jean-Pierre Melville

“Army of Shadows” is Jean Pierre Melville’s late career masterpiece. Released in 1969, the film never made it to the U.S. until 2006, some 37 years later!  At the time, Melville’s films were out of touch with the then popular French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut and company.  Now available on DVD, via Criterion, this is a must see for film lovers. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the novel that was the basis for Luis Bunnel’s classic Belle de Jour.

      The film details the story of a group of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. This is not the usual romanticized version of daring resistance fighters gloriously facing the German occupiers. Nor is it an action war film. It is a fatalistic, devastatingly dark look at the difficult choices made by this small group of individuals in order to survive. Posing as plain citizens, they spy on the Germans and report back information gathered to the Allies.  The film was not popular with the French at the time since it portrayed some of the French as complacent or complicit in siding with the Germans.

       The film opens with what must have been a chilling scene to the French; the German Nazi Army marching down the Champs-Elysees.  The film goes on to detail a few months in the life of a small unit of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. The unit is lead by Gerbier, portrayed by Lino Ventura, as a brooding, single-minded and dedicated figure. Also, part of the group, are Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel), Claude (Claude Mann) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret).

       Melville does not portray these people as heroic, refusing to show or give any empathy for what they do. They live in fear and feel ineffective. One of the more unsettling scenes shows the resistance fighters in an abandon house as they prepare to kill a terrified young traitor. These men are not professional killers; it’s the first time any of them have been in a position where they have to kill someone. They’re hesitant, unsure of what is the best way to proceed before deciding to strangle him. The scene is disturbing grabbing you and refusing to let go. In another tense scene the terrific Simone Signoret, disguised as a German nurse, along with two fellow resisters enters a German prison in an attempt to free one of their comrades who has been badly tortured. The man has been so badly beaten, they are told,  it is impossible for them to transport him. Without any argument Signoret accepts what is said and they leave. To do otherwise would invite suspicion.  These scenes contain no action, no music but are gripping and as tense as anything you will see.  The film is filled with strong powerful scenes like this including a shocking ending that demonstrates the disturbingly grim difficult decisions that have to be made in war.

      Melville’s use of muted colors dominate the entire film contributing to the unsettling, chilly and foreboding atmosphere.  There are great performances by Lino Ventura, Jean Pierre Cassel and most magnificently by Simone Signoret.