THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
What happens when the hunter becomes the hunted? The Most Dangerous Game is a brilliant, atmospheric thriller that moves quickly and does not let up on the tension of the story. While perhaps the acting may not be as good as it could have been, one quickly gets drawn into the film, making it a breathless adventure of mouse-and-cat.
Big game hunter Robert "Bob" Rainsford (Joel McCrae) has a theoretical conversation with other passengers on a yacht on hunting: why killing for sport as humans do is "civilized" while killing for survival as animals do is "savage". The yacht runs into a hidden reef, causing it to sink and Bob to be the only survivor.
He swims to a nearby island inhabited by exiled Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is an admirer of Rainsford's hunting books. Zaroff routinely rescues shipwrecked people on his remote island, and now not only hosts Rainsford but the brother and sister Trowbridges: Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray). Zaroff tells Rainsford that he too is a big-game hunter but on his island, he's discovered "the most dangerous game".
To Eve's suspicions and Rainsford's horror, "the most dangerous game" is humans. Zaroff's hidden Trophy Room contains his human collection, poor Martin the newest one. Rainsford rejects Zaroff's offer to join this wicked game, so now he's the newest hunted. Eve joins him though Zaroff promises no harm to her as he does not hunt females. If Rainsford can survive to dawn, he will be freed, but no one has beaten Zaroff. Now the race is on to see who will last this brutal contest.
The Most Dangerous Game is a pun, "game" meaning both the object of the chase and the machinations of Zaroff. Co-directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack create an eerie mood through the film, which is filled with some breathtaking sequences.
Of particular note is the climatic chase into the foggy swamp, where many a hunted lost to the wicked Count. We get several different POV shots including those of Bob and Eve, which gives things a desperate immediacy that thrills and terrifies. Max Steiner's score also elevates the tension in this wild chase. The danger never lets up once Rainsford and Eve are let out in their harrowing day and night of doom.
The menacing mood of The Most Dangerous Game starts right at the beginning, with Steiner's score and with the opening of the large wooden door with its ominous doorknocker: a beast with an arrow cradling a woman. The film also subtly foreshadows Rainsford's dilemma with its opening conversation about whether Rainsford would switch places with the animals he stalks.
It also allows for some comedy among the madness with Armstrong's delightful turn as the increasingly inebriated Martin. While Eve suspects danger given that the two sailors rescued with them have disappeared after seeing Zaroff's Trophy Room, Martin is sloshed out of his mind but happily so. His comical interactions with the very serious Zaroff add that touch of humor to the film.
Perhaps the most surprising element in The Most Dangerous Game is that the film is remarkably short: a mere 63 minutes. In its brisk running time one can quickly get caught up in the story to where one doesn't notice how short the film is.
One element in James Ashmore Creelman's adaptation of Richard Connell's short story is that while Zaroff is clearly insane, he is also brilliant. Every trap that the experienced Rainsford sets fails to capture him, making Zaroff something of a major threat.
I say "something of" because the one element in The Most Dangerous Game that I found a puzzle was the acting. I can overlook Banks' way-out-there almost campy take on Zaroff. He is playing a way-out-there almost campy villain so he could afford to be over-the-top. What I struggled with was the duo of McCrae and Wray. In fairness to Wray (who would go on to immortality when she reunited with Schoedrack and the film's producer Merian C. Cooper for King Kong), her role was nothing more than the "damsel in distress" with little to do. The role made her something of an idiot, forever screaming and being inept in her rather skimpy dress.
McCrae was another matter. He was one of the best and most underappreciated actors of his generation, but in The Most Dangerous Game there seemed to be something of an overdramatic nature to his performance, almost as if he wanted to match Banks and Wray in their overdramatic performances.
This is an issue, as looking at it now the acting seems to be a bit broad save for Armstrong, who would also reunite with Wray, Schoedrack and Cooper in King Kong for the serious role of producer Carl Denham.
In retrospect this is a minor issue, for The Most Dangerous Game is a thrilling and incredibly well-crafted film that cries for a remake. Fast and exciting, The Most Dangerous Game is a most brilliant film.