Classic Film Review: The Urtext for Thrillers — “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932)

As I looked up the credits of this 1932 film, I stumbled across a 2022 remake I missed starring Casper van Diem and Judd Nelson, among others.

That’s hardly a surprise. “The Most Dangerous Game” is the most filmed, referenced, borrowed from and outright ripped-off thriller plot of them all.

The all-star TV series “Most Dangerous Game,” the Ice-T A-picture “Surviving the Game,” the more recent C-movie “Hounds of Zaroff,” the 1970s theatrical thriller “The Suckers” are all direct and occasionally uncredited descendants of this 1932 film and the Richard Connell short story that inspired it.

I remember running across the 1974 TV movie “Savages,” with Andy Griffith at his most murderous, and thinking “Most Dangerous Game,” even though pulp novelist Robb White “borrowed” the big game hunter hunting a man plot device for a somewhat different spin on the story.

Stephen King’s “The Running Man” to the YA blockbuster “The Hunger Games,” Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey” and every other story about hunters hunting human prey owes a debt to Connell, who also wrote the story that “Meet John Doe” was based on.

I feel as if I’m referencing this thriller Urtext once or twice a year, most years. Screenwriters cannot resist the idea that some rich, entitled, trigger-happy hunter, unduly proud of his “skills,” would want to tackle “the most dangerous game” or prey of all, a cunning, desperate human being, someone with the wherewithal to fight back.

The first film made from it took advantage of jungle, “fortress” and island sets built for the classic “King Kong” to turn out a brief, brisk thriller whose plot points would loom larger than its own reputation. Co-star Fay Wray must have had deja vu, as she’d shoot chunks of “King Kong” on the same sets, and dash to wardrobe to change into her costume for “Most Dangerous Game,” as they filmed at the same time.

This was right after sound came in, just before the Hays Production (censorship) Code, exactly the sort of manic, factory-efficient work climate captured in “Babylon.”

This 63 minute RKO star vehicle for young Joel McCrea came a decade before his peak years, when “Foreign Correspondent,” “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Palm Beach Story” cemented his stardom.

The plot introduces some rich, big game hunting swells as they’re passing by this mysterious island in the Pacific when navigation lights misdirect them and their ship runs aground. The sole survivor is the adventure writer/hunter Bob Rainsford (McCrea).

He staggers ashore on Baranka Island, and thanks to the baying of hounds, comes upon a Gothic stone home of Count Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks, the original “Man Who Knew Too Much,” making his big screen debut.

The count is a Russian emigre, deposed along with his czar, living in solitude and comfort on an old Portuguese fortress with a few trusted “Tatar” servants and his pack of Great Danes.

But there are other survivors, from an earlier shipwreck, siblings (Wray and Robert Armstrong). Funny thing about all the shipwrecks around this “cursed” island.

And the count knows Rainsford’s work. He’s a fan of the one writer who does “not excuse what needs no excuse.” As Rainsford was bragging to his fellow swells on board the yacht that “The world’s divided into two kinds of people, the hunters and the hunted. Luckily, I’m a hunter,” we assume that’s what the count is talking about.

“God made some men kings, some beggars,” the Russian boasts. “Me, he made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger.”

But he’s cagey about what he hunts on this private island, “the most dangerous game.”

That will become clear soon enough, as we glimpse the creep’s “trophy room,” with its shrunken heads of his victims. That scene is one place this movie was shortened from a pre-release 78 minutes to the 63 minutes it remains to this day. Pity.

When the jig’s up, the count gets his latest game of “outdoor chess, his brain against mine, his woodcraft against mine.”

Naturally, Bob has to take “the girl” with him.

The film has a pre-Code kinkiness in the slinky clothes the fellow hostage/prey Eve wears, and in the count’s eagerness to relate the thrill of the kill to “the true ecstasy of love.”

Banks milks this scarred, jodhpurs-clad villain for all that the character is worth. Filmed during the Great Depression, it can’t have been hard for audiences to root against the rich psychopath even as the glib, macho “big game hunter” hero was nobody’s idea of a working class hero.

That’s one of the reasons the plot remains an evergreen. The idea that the rich would blithely figure lesser mortals are merely here for their consequence-free sport never goes out of style. We see pasty-faced, coddled versions of this callous count, or their Arabic counterparts, on the news on a daily basis.

The film itself hops along, but is a tad crude and obvious in its manipulations — villainous, bottom-lit insert shots of the evil count underscore the archetype.

The tricks our hunter employs to try and foil or kill the count have become standard boobytraps in the many versions of man/woman-hunting-woman/man thrillers, the “Malay dead fall,” etc.

For such a short film, “The Most Dangerous Game” starts with a sort of leisurely languor, setting up our “hero” and his fellows as entitled creeps in their own right. We see the faceless crew perish in the sinking, sharks devouring them after a pretty convincing model of a steam yacht goes down.

The count meets Rainsford in tie and tails, Depression Era shorthand for how that alien species, the super rich, went through their days.

But directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, and “King Kong” editor Achie Marshek turn the third act into a bloody-minded sprint, so brisk that one can only wonder at the details of the hunt and chase and action that was whittled out to make this picture short enough to run with serials, cartoons and newsreels in 1932.

McCrea became an accomplished player in rapid fire films like this. It was good practice for his comedies and Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent.” Wray doesn’t have much to do, but she is the very face of the peril her character is in her, and in the palm of the giant ape she was co-starring with at the same time.

Although it was a hit at the time, “Most Dangerous Game” is not one of the outstanding films of its day, and nobody would confuse this for landmarks like “King Kong.” But it a classic in all the ways that matter, and essential viewing for anybody who doesn’t mind recognizing its plot, over and over again, in the 90 years of cinema that has followed.

Rating: pre-“Hays” code, unrated

Cast: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong, Hale Hamilton, William B. Davidson and Noble Johnson.

Credits: Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, scripted by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the short story by Richard Conell. An RKO release on Youtube, Amazon, Tubi, etc.

Running time: 1:06

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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