Sunday, September 18, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)

The Most Dangerous Game


Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman from the story by Richard Connell
Produced by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper
Music by Max Steiner


Starring
Joel McCrea as Bob Rainsford
Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff
Fay Wray as Eve
Robert Armstrong as Martin


An RKO Radio Picture


"The world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that."
            --Bob Rainsford


Pity poor Bob Rainsford. He has no idea what he has inspired . . .

Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is a world renowned big game hunter who's written some bestselling books about the Tao of the Hunter, as it were, which seem to be proto-Ayn Randian works pitched at a thoroughly wankerish level of Neoconservative spankery. But Bob seems like a nice enough guy. He seems like the sort of guy who probably took a hard line when writing the books, but is much more self-deprecating in person, know what I mean? Like, you don't think those right-wing pundits are really that assholish in real life, do you? They're just puttin' on a little show, bro, they got families to feed, ratings to spike, and they gotta strike a tone that resonates throughout the decadent and glutted mediascape, so what's a few lies and exaggerations and fish stories to pad out the page count, eh? No big deal. Rainsford's got books to sell, product to move, world-around cruises to bankroll. Let a player play.

Anyways, Rainsford is on a pleasure cruise with a bunch of his wealthy friends regaling them all with his philosophy which divides all living beings into the hunter and the hunted, when the ship cracks up on a reef. Rainsford is washed ashore on an island and he makes his way inland to a strange castle which has a big sturdy door with a demoniacal knocker on it: a snarling centaur, an arrow piercing his breast, and a helpless woman in his arms . . . you have to pull down on the woman in the arms to make the thing work. Rainsford is admitted into the castle which is a wild-ass gothic affair presided over by the dashing and demented Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), formerly of Russia, but his accent makes you wonder if that was Russia by way of the little theatre production of Dracula. Count Zaroff is no vampire, however, at least not the supernatural kind. You could say he's the real world version: he gets excited by the thrill of the hunt, he goes into quasi-religious ecstasy at the sight of his prey's blood, and he is oh so glad to meet Rainsford.

The Count is not alone. He has a couple of menacing henchmen for servants, and a couple of other folks who're also shipwrecked: the lovely Eve (Fay Wray) and her supremely obnoxious brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). Martin is a goddamn drunk. He's Arthur before Arthur. The kind of guy who wakes up drunk. Martin's speech is so slurred that it is starting to mutate the English language into a wholly new, sublime, and ludicrous dialect.

Rainsford and Zaroff get to talking, and Zaroff realizes he's talking to the Rainsford, the one who wrote all those books about the hunters and the hunted. Books that Zaroff has read, adored, studied, memorized, and taken on as a kind of philosophy of life. Rainsford is taken aback by all this, and seems like maybe he didn't quite mean every last bit of his argument . . . you know like when the far right crowd starts showing up at Presidential Town Halls strapped and chromed and loaded for bear and then they gotta say, "Oh, we're not advocating violence. We're just advocating showing up at a public event attended by key political leadership of the opposition with loaded assault weapons. That's all well within our Second Amendment rights, yessir!" Rainsford gives the impression that maybe he doesn't believe as fervently in the stark dualism of hunter vs. hunted, but Zaroff will have none of that, and after enduring Martin's exhortations to party down now, and hunt later, the Count drops this:

"He talks of wine and women as a prelude to the hunt. We barbarians know that it is after the chase, and then only, that man revels. You know the saying of the Ogandi chieftans: "Hunt first the enemy, then the woman." It is the natural instinct. The blood is quickened by the kill. One passion builds upon another. Kill, then love! When you have known that, you have known ecstasy."

Rainsford is taken aback by this, but doesn't quite get the full picture until Eve clues him in: apparently some other shipwrecked sailors were taken by the Count on a tour of the Trophy Room and never returned. Eve fears the Count has done something wicked to the able seamen . . .


But why should I give the rest of the movie away? The movie is in the public domain and you can watch all 63 minutes of it in glorious black and white on the embedded youtube video below. You can also probably find it some other places, whatever your preference. 


A few more remarks about this movie: this is one of those movies about hunting humans. Yes, Count Zaroff sees people as "The Most Dangerous Game," and so he hunts them for sport to satiate his bloodlust. This is all pretty obvious once the Count starts talking. What wasn't obvious was just how harrowing that hunt ends up being. For a movie from 1932, this movie moves at a brisk clip, and, once the hunt is on, it doesn't let up. It's a descent into stylized savagery, and the movie plays like a blend of the silent Germanic Expressionism of Lang and Murnau with the pace cranked way up, and the fists landing with audible thuds straight out of the old Saturday Matinee action serials. This movie was also shot concurrently with the original King Kong utilizing the same cast, crew, and lavish jungle sets. The producers doubled-up their productions, and got maximum value for both pictures. Do I need to say that The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong make a thrilling double feature? Hey, I said it. 


As stated above, this is one of those movies about hunting humans, maybe the first. It is derived from a short story by Richard Connell, which, if memory serves, was more about a one on one battle between shipwrecked Rainsford and the villainous Zaroff on a remote island, but the movie version increases the number of folks involved and makes quite a memorable villain out of Zaroff. 


Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks, who had suffered a real life World War I injury which partially paralyzed and scarred the left side of his face. This injury is incorporated into the character of Zaroff as an injury suffered while stalking a beast in the wild. It is implied by the movie that this injury may have nudged Zaroff towards the dark side. In some ways it also seems to play on the notion of shell-shock, the nervous breakdown experienced by veterans of WWI's brutal trench warfare. Maybe you could even look at Count Zaroff as a melodramatic and villainous cousin to the haunted Septimus Warren Smith from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.


The Most Dangerous Game has seemingly given birth to a whole sub-genre of films dealing with the idea of some sort of life and death bloodsport played out like some kind of evil big game hunt: Hard Target, Surviving the Game, The Running Man, and, most spectacularly,  the year 2000's  Battle Royale adapted from a novel published in 1999. 


Battle Royale concerns a fiendish game orchestrated by a totalitarian Japanese government which pits teenage students against each other with a variety of randomly distributed weapons. It's like a massively multiplayer online shoot 'em up made real. The referee of this sick game is played by Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan's living national treasures. Kitano is a novelist, filmmaker, actor, comedian, talk show host, visual artist, video game designer--he's done it all. Kitano was also once in a motorcycle accident which left his face partially paralyzed . . .


So, there you have the Takeshi Kitano/Leslie Banks/The Most Dangerous Game/Battle Royale connection, trivial and coincidental though it may be . . .

Full Movie:

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