If you think the practice of cost-cutting by filming two movies at the same time is a modern convention with things like “Back to the Future 1 & 2” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3,” you wouldn’t even be close. In 1932 RKO filmed “The Most Dangerous Game” and “King Kong” simultaneously. They had built jungle sets, and they wanted to get their money’s worth from them. Indeed, the two movies even use many of the same filmmakers and actors (director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, producer David O. Selznick, screenwriter James Creelman, art director Carroll Clark, set decorator Thomas Little, composer Max Steiner, actress Fay Wray, actor Robert Armstrong, among others). As a trivia note, the studio released “King Kong” about six months after “The Most Dangerous Game,” mainly because of the postproduction special effects they had to add to “Kong.”
Anyway, you probably remember Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” from reading it in school; it appears in as many anthologies of great short stories as practically any tale ever written. And appropriate to such a famous story, Hollywood has made it into any number of movies and imitations like “Run for the Sun,” “A Game of Death,” “The Naked Prey,” and the like.
You know the story: An American adventurer, big-game hunter, and author, Sanger Rainsford, on his way to South America falls off a boat and winds up on an uncharted island in the Caribbean. On the island lives an aristocratic Cossack General named Zaroff and his ferocious, deaf-mute manservant, Ivan. Zaroff’s pleasure is to hunt big game, and his favorite game animal is the smartest of them all–Man. He waits for shipwrecks off his island, takes in the survivors, and then offers each person the chance to play a game with him: He will let the person loose on the island while he hunts him down. If the person can elude Zaroff for three days, the person wins, and Zaroff will let him go. If Zaroff finds the person, he kills him. It’s just a game to the bored Zaroff, with a deadly finish. Zaroff has never lost.
The movie follows the short story’s plot fairly well, with a few changes and additions. The movie calls Sanger Rainsford simply “Bob” Rainsford, and he’s played by Joel McCrea. This time, Rainsford doesn’t just fall off a boat; the boat sinks, leaving him the sole survivor. Once on the island, Rainsford meets not “General” Zaroff but “Count” Zaroff, actor Leslie Banks in full evening apparel, a tuxedo. RKO made the movie just a year after the success of Universal’s “Dracula,” so they weren’t missing any bets here.
Most important, Rainsford isn’t the only one stranded on the island when he arrives. RKO have added two new characters, a sister and brother, also shipwrecked. Eve Trowbridge, played by Fay Wray, is a beautiful young woman, and Martin Trowbridge, played by Robert Armstrong, is her foolish, drunken brother. Whether you think the movie really needed the addition of a heroine is beside the point; audiences expected heroines, especially helpless, semi-hysterical ones, so that’s what the studio provided. About the only character entirely faithful to the short story is Ivan, the manservant, played by Noble Johnson, an actor who often played character parts, but even more often, perhaps because of his size, found himself in secondary villain roles.
The co-directors of the film had plenty of experience in action movies before and after “The Most Dangerous Game.” Irving Pichel made “She,” “The Pied Piper,” “Destination Moon,” and others, and Ernest B. Schoedsack made “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Son of Kong” (as well as an uncredited stint as co-director of “King Kong”), “The Last Days of Pompeii,” and “Mighty Joe Young,” among many more. Here, the two directors don’t hesitate to use as many gimmicks as they can, including swirling cameras, first-person flights through the jungle, overhead shots, etc. The photography is, in fact, one of the best things about the picture.
Yet the film is not really that big on action. The hunt in the jungle doesn’t begin until well after the film’s halfway mark, the first thirty-odd minutes giving us a good deal of introduction, characterization, and exposition. Then, when we do get to the hunt, poor Rainsford has to protect the young woman, a burden he didn’t have in the short story.
Leslie Banks as Zaroff is wonderfully over-the-top, but Armstrong’s drunk act gets old quickly. McCrea and Wray are pretty good, especially McCrea, who had just begun his acting career a few years earlier and would remain a leading man for the next forty-odd years.
A word about the “trophy room.” As in the short story, the movie’s Zaroff is fond of displaying his “kills,” and apparently preview audiences thought some of what RKO showed on screen was too gruesome for the studio to retain in the final cut. Still, what we do see is hideous enough. Also, because RKO made the film before the implementation of Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship laws, Ms. Wray shows a bit more skin than she might have if the studio had made the film a few years later.
Interestingly, too, the filmmakers postpone most of the story’s more lurid scenes for later in the picture, a device that works well in building up the film’s mystery and horror and in heightening our anxiety for what is about to happen next. Zaroff proves an adept hunter and Rainsford a formidable foe, so even though the actual hunt lasts only ten or fifteen minutes, it offers a solid culmination of the conflict.
Of course, by today’s standards “The Most Dangerous Game” is melodramatic, the acting stiff, and Max Steiner’s music overwrought; yet I’m sure that’s exactly why audiences liked the movie in the first place and why we find it so much fun today.
The VCI video engineers have retained most of the film’s original aspect ratio in their 1.33:1 transfer. The black-and-white contrasts look excellent, with mostly deep blacks and glistening whites. The digital cleaning and restoration also includes the elimination of most egregious age marks, so you’ll not find many flecks, specks, lines, ticks, or fades. There is a still a light print grain, however, to remind us that this has, after all, a real film texture. And, most important, we get decent object delineation for a standard-def product.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track reproduces the film’s early monaural sound as well as one could reasonably expect. You may notice a small degree of background noise, but it’s infrequent. For the most part, it appears that VCI have applied a bit of discreet noise reduction that works fine. Given the film’s age, the sound restoration is quite remarkable, clean and quiet.
VCI have taken a page from the Warner Bros. handbook by providing us a typical night at the movies in 1932. First, they give us a Max Fleischer Betty Boop Paramount cartoon in black-and-white, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You!,” about seven minutes long and featuring Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. Next, we find an “Adventure Parade” newsreel, “Clyde Beatty Animal Thrills,” about nine minutes. Then there’s chapter one of the serial “The Last of the Mohicans,” with Harry Carey, the chapter lasting a little over thirty minutes. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are English subtitles; and even though there is no scene-selections menu for the main feature, you can skip through the film’s seven segments by using the “Next” button on your remote.
It isn’t fair to compare 1932’s “The Most Dangerous Game” with one of today’s whiz-bang, high-tech CGI action flicks, but we don’t need to. The older movie is far stronger on atmospherics than it is on actual thrills, which is just fine by me. Instead of relying only on its graphic appeal, “The Most Dangerous Game” relies on old-fashioned characterization, tension, and suspense. It’s concise in its adventure, corny when it needs to be, sentimental, and sincere. In other words, it has all the qualities that make an old-time thriller as much fun as we like them.