By Daniel Barnes
Based on a widely adapted 1924 short story by Richard Connell, the 1932 chiller The Most Dangerous Game is the film that producers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper made right before King Kong. There are suggestions of that more famous jungle-kink adventure flick in The Most Dangerous Game, and a number of the same performers as well, including Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.
However, this story of a rich psycho who hunts humans is more of a creepy chamber drama than an action adventure, and the final third dominated by the hunt is the least interesting part of the picture. A film that compares more directly with the lusty and violent The Most Dangerous Game is Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, right down to the “exotic” foreign villain who equates bloodletting with sexual virility.
The villain here is Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a mesmerizing display of overacting), a Cossack who escaped the Russian Revolution with his fortune intact. Zaroff elected to use his wealth in the way that most of would if we’re being totally honest – he bought some nice clothes, a sweet motorboat, and a centuries-old Portuguese island fortress where his mute henchmen help him hunt shipwreck victims like wild game (be honest!). Zaroff claims that “Providence” made his island a magnet for shipwrecks, and at times the place has the feel of a purgatory, with the leering Zaroff playing host and satyr-in-chief.
Joel McCrea is the hero of the piece, a world-famous safari hunter (ah, the early 1930s!) travelling on the boat of his rich benefactors, where they wear high-waisted slacks with wide ties while discussing “the inconsistency of civilization”. McCrea argues that hunting is sport for the prey as well as the human predators, and offers this ominous self-jinx: “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.” Cue ironic shipwreck.
At only 63 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game doesn’t have time for wasted space, and as with many films of this era, the story moves so fast that it acquires its own inner logic. Exaggerated gestures, such as the way Zaroff rubs his head scar whenever he gets a thirst for the kill, become the language of the film’s manufactured world, and only add to the eerie atmosphere.
Even so, some of the most unsettling moments are almost throwaways, like when one of Zaroff’s unwitting victims laughs maniacally, as though he were the hunter instead of the impending prey. I also could not get enough of Banks’ succulent line readings, including the possessed and slightly pleased manner in which he says, “I shall hunt you like a leopard.” Even if it takes far too long to get to the “twist” that we all see coming from the first five minutes, the pre-Code brutality and sexual deviance of The Most Dangerous Game makes it a fascinating watch, right down to that sick and satisfying final shot.