“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.