Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Great Unwatched: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directors: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel

Runtime: 63 minutes

For such a short film, this one packs a wallop. Filmed alongside King Kong (1933) and utilizing many of the same sets (and two of the same actors), The Most Dangerous Game is a pretty brutal little horror film for its time. Surviving a shipwreck, big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) washes up on the private island of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Zaroff is a hunter, too, but his quarry isn't lions or jaguars -- it's people. Soon Rainsford is put in the position of prey, protecting not only his own life but the virtue of fellow castaway Eve Towbridge (Fay Wray). The pair have four hours to evade Zaroff, his henchmen, and his vicious hunting dogs.

Screenwriter James Ashmore Creelman remains fairly faithful to Richard Connell's short story, even taking whole lines of dialogue verbatim. He does make some concessions to common Hollywood wisdom, adding a damsel in distress, which adds a sexual kink to the character of Zaroff that's not apparent in the female-free story. Creelman also strikes all references to Rainsford having fought in World War I (likely because McCrea turned thirteen just two weeks before Armistice Day), a change which removes some (although not all) ambiguity from the protagonist's moral high ground.

Banks makes for an intimidating villain, partially due to his "give it all" performance, but also because of a physical aspect of the actor's features. Half of his face was paralyzed in World War I, giving one of his eyes a perpetually crazed look. It serves the character of Zaroff well -- there's always a madman there, even when the other half of the face is being genial. And when both halves match... well, watch out.

A surprisingly brutal pre-Code trophy room scene, great pacing, and a phenomenal score by Max Steiner add to what is highly enjoyable flick. If you're in the market for thrills, be sure to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD, which boasts a very informative commentary track courtesy of Bruce Eder.

Fun trivia #1: co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack is a native of Iowa, just like your humble blogger.

Fun trivia #2: This is only the first adaptation of Connell's short story in the project. The other is Bloodlust! starring Robert Reed of The Brady Bunch.

Stats: 24/401 movies watched in twenty-one days.
Currently Projected Completion Date: February 9, 2010
Completion Date Goal: February 25, 2010

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