“A terrible thought crept like a snake into my mind – hunting was beginning to bore me.”
Like calamitous oceanic buses, two shipwrecks have left Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrae) and a handful of other lucky souls marooned on a remote island, the only survivors from their respective vessels, both run aground on reefs due to apparent tampering with local shipping signals. Once ashore, Rainsford navigates the local overgrown flora and finds himself at a huge mansion, more likely to be found in rather more gothic surroundings.
Rainsford is warmly welcomed by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a decadent host accustomed to a life of decadence and death after leaving the family estate in the Crimea and then a stint serving as a Cossack commander. Zaroff is now living a God-like existence on the remote island, enjoying a lavish lifestyle, free from prying eyes and outside influences. From his youth shooting his father’s wild turkeys for sport, his experiences at war have contributed to his disturbed mindset, his bloodlust having exhausted the local wildlife and developed to craving more trying prey.
Rainsford himself is revealed to be a hunter of some note, a plot twist which would be likely given short shrift by a modern audience, though it served its purpose as a device for cinema-goers at the time. Delighted to find a sportsman of such renown, Zaroff introduces him to two other castaways – the beautiful Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her brother, Martin (Robert Armstrong), already significantly inebriated thanks to Zaroff’s plentiful supply of premium vodka.
Zaroff engages Rainsford in animated conversation about their shared interest and asks if he too has grown tired of traditional prey and seeks a greater challenge. It takes Ms. Trowbridge to join the dots for him, though by that time, a presumably staggering Martin has been let loose, slain and been thoroughly plucked for the Count’s trophy cabinet. The remaining duo are given until sunrise to flee into the jungle, armed only with a small knife, Zaroff and his ravenous hounds giving them a head start but little chance. Survive and they will have their lives spared… but the odds are against them!
Released in Britain under the title The Hounds of Zaroff, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is a superior example of Pre-Code horror, which even now is shocking in its fervent sadism, not to mention the thinly veiled sexual threat (and indeed, Wray’s thin veils).
Adapted from the 1924 short story written by Richard Connell, it sticks closely to the original narrative, save for some character changes, most notably the addition of a female character. Published in the American magazine, Collier’s, also the home of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, pre-book form, it reveals Man at his most basic: hunter; exploiter; imperialist and autocrat – asserting his position at the top of the food chain.
The notion of hunting humans is immediately gripping, though other elements are equally disarming. Of all the characters, by far the most interesting is Zaroff – elegantly bewitching, though otherworldly as an aristocratic ‘foreigner’, a hierarchy within the household is quickly established – Zaroff as alpha male (actually, alpha human); Bob as the challenge to his dominance; Eve as his sexual quarry; his faithful, blood-thirsty hounds; his Cossack servants and lastly, lesser, male prey.
Zaroff continually shows the odds are always in his favour. He feeds, clothes and avails himself to his guests and, even when hunting, recognises a modest token of defence for his game is fair sport (“I’m a hunter, not a murderer!”), opting himself for a longbow, reflecting both his background and his genuine belief of himself as evolutionary superior to others. This would all fall somewhat flat and a tad silly were it not for the sensational performance by Leslie Banks.
Wounded in WWI, he was left with significant scarring to the left side of his face, as well as some deformity around the eye. As such, he spent much of his career having perfected a technique whereby the camera would only film him from the right, a show of brave defiance which would be almost unthinkable now. The Most Dangerous Game was the film which acted as the springboard to his career and one in which he was confident enough to use his features to their fullest.
When slowly turning to face his guests, he intones that his wounds, including a fractured skull which he absent-mindedly caresses throughout the film, were as a result of a confrontation with a Cape buffalo – this is not a film with a protagonist who is pure, undiluted evil but one with a mentally and physically scarred man. As such, it is possible to watch the film in true support of Zaroff, as much a victim of circumstance in the same way as King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster and The Wolfman. It has to be said, this view is aided somewhat by those who he deems fit to hunt. Banks would later star in Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and perhaps most famously, 1942’s Went the Day Well?
McCrae is, it must be said, a lead actor of certain qualities – sadly these do not include acting. As a butch, action hero, he looks not unlike a more rugged Flash Gordon (ironically, Buster Crabbe makes a brief, uncredited appearance on the ship, as well as being McCrae’s stunt double), fleet of foot, able to drag a woman by the hand at a moment’s notice and look in different directions when prompted. He does not, sadly, for a minute, prompt much sympathy from the audience. As a hunter himself, boastful of his many four-legged gunshot-riddled conquests, he is scarcely any different from Zaroff, who at least has the grace to give his guests a weapon and a head-start.
His character behaves little better, in truth. Given the opportunity to flee before Zaroff’s hunting party give chase, he opts to build an elaborate man-trap, which by his own admissions will take a few hours. This peculiar preference to running as far away as possible is immediately revealed to be folly of the highest order when Zaroff enters the clearing and spots it instantly, disarming it and immediately locating his prey.
If people know anything about The Most Dangerous Game, it’s that it was filmed in tandem with 1933’s King Kong – I am not about to disappoint you. Largely filmed at night, utilising some of the immediately recognisable jungle scenery (in particular the chasm-spanning log), there was a very obvious need to re-use props, environments, actors and crew – King Kong had gone dizzyingly over budget and RKO were beginning to panic. This had been exacerbated by the hiring of composer Max Steiner, the first horror film to deliver a truly specifically composed score and one which also heavily utilised sound effects. Steiner’s music is indeed present in The Most Dangerous Game, but is noticeably less pronounced and serves as a more traditional action adventure score than what would become more commonly heard in the horror films which followed in the late 1930’s and 1940’s. Due to the technical complications of Kong, The Most Dangerous Game hit the big screen first, though this was not as intended.
Also on double-time were director, Ernest B. Schoedsack; producers Merian C. Cooper and David O. Selznick; screenplay writer, James Creelman, as well as actors, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Steve Clemente and Noble Johnson. Alas, Wray rather sleepwalks through the film, clearly having saved her best work for the daytime – indeed, in her autobiography, On the Other Hand, she barely sees fit to mention the film’s jungle twin at all. Eve as a character is given little to do and seems almost as aloof as Zaroff – her fondness for her brother seems a little lacking and it’s difficult to discern any burgeoning relationship between herself and Rainsford. Those with magical ears will recognise some of her screams are identical to those also used in King Kong.
Armstrong performs far more appealingly, just about on the right side of jambon grande as the louche castaway, seemingly entirely happy with the way things have turned out. He provides much necessary comic relief, though his swift dispatch means the film’s thunderous pace in the second-half is utterly without respite. Though his death appears off-camera, we are left to visualise ourselves how pitiful the hunting of a defenceless, completely sozzled man in a completely alien setting would be. The eternal truth of what you don’t see speaking as loudly as what you do, being a device many modern filmmakers could learn from.
Clemente was quite possibly the first Latin-American actor to break through into the Hollywood system, albeit in a rather minor capacity. His exotic looks, accent and handy ability at expertly throwing knives, made him a popular villain for filmmakers, appearing in the likes of King Kong, its sequel Son of Kong, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and Murder in the Museum (1934).
Perhaps most interesting is the appearance of Noble Johnson as Zaroff’s loyal but “dumb” tartar servant, Ivan. A masterclass in subtlety, his performance is all the more eye-popping due to the fact that far from cossack or even caucasian, Johnson was a black African-American, whited-up by the make-up department, immediately rendering his physical appearance as…unusual.
A childhood friend of Lon Chaney Snr. Johnson’s willingness, as well as talent, to play a multitude of races meant that he became cinema’s first Black American film star, even rising high enough to set up his own film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. There is, of course, the none too subtle inference that these subservient swarthy men are somewhat less than human themselves, hence Zaroff’s tolerance.
At a meagre 63 minutes, not a second is wasted in the film, the audience thrown off the sinking ship and onto the island as quickly as those marooned. It’s worth noting that that the wreck itself, whilst never convincing in terms of scale, is oddly brutal in enactment, with the addition of sharks thrown into an already perilous predicament.
Zaroff is introduced as a new character at the same time as Eve and Bob, allowing us to share their observations first-hand and leaving Banks alone to convey to us the nature of the predicament.
If 63 minutes seems overly brief, it is worth noting that the short story is indeed that – 8000 words with not even Wray’s character involved. The film revels in the very basic human fears of being lost, chased and, of course, the unknown.
In fact, a significant part of the film remains lost – preview screenings are listed as running for a full 73 minutes. Much of the missing action takes place in Zaroff’s tour of his hunting gallery, the displays featuring not only wild beasts but also mounted human heads and dramatically-posed stuffed bodies, but was excised for reasons of decency after preview audiences objected.
Although an obvious bedfellow in film terms with King Kong, the film actually makes an ideal double bill with Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, also from 1932. Both films boast a sensational villain played to perfection, a remote island which has adopted its own morality, and themes which are as relevant now as they were eighty-odd years ago.
On the subject of morality, if there’s one element of Zaroff’s personality which isn’t so easily dismissed, it’s his carnal desires for Eve. Repeated motifs on both the door knocker and a huge wall mural depict a satyr-like creature holding a defeated, bedraggled female in its arms, remarkably similar to famous depiction of Kong and Wray, the tap on the nose being that Zaroff too will ultimately assert his dominance over his prized woman. When the Count speaks of the hunt, “quickening the blood”, it is clear that he does not intend to romance Eve as such when he triumphs, more that he will rape her.
The most dangerous game the title speaks of, both as the nature of the quarry and the morally troublesome notion of playing God, works on film as perfectly as it did on the page. The British re-titling of Hounds of Zaroff is less subtle and indeed does little to present Zaroff to us as a benefactor before we’ve even met him. The hounds themselves were not especially fearsome and had to be dyed a darker shade in order to convey more readily a sense of evil. Less happy with this arrangement was the owner of dogs who had loaned them to the producers, without being informed of the rough and tumble they would be asked to perform, nor of their new hairdos – none other than the legendary silent comedian, Harold Lloyd. A pair of glass but with no smile, one suspects.
As with an alarming number of films of the period, the film was considered lost for a significant number of years, despite its cast, crew and success – filmed for a cost of approximately $200,000, it quickly made its money back plus a profit of $70,000 in the first year alone. In fact, once the film had exhausted its run at cinemas (perhaps brought to a more abrupt end than it deserved due to the success of its ape twin), it was over a decade before the film raised its head above the parapet once more. First it was reformed as an episode of the CBS Radio series, Suspense, in 1943 with Orson Welles playing the role of Zaroff, then an entirely new film production, 1945’s A Game of Death directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting; The Day the Earth Stood Still) which changed the setting to a post-war environment, with a Nazi as the more obvious villain.
Also making an appearance is our good friend, Noble Johnson, playing Carib, an island native, whilst also appearing as Ivan in stock footage used for part of the hunting dog sequence…such was the meagre budget afforded the film. Indeed, RKO, the once mighty film Goliath, had barely more than a decade left in its recognisable form before the curtains were drawn shut for one last time. Thus, perhaps the most confusing pub quiz question ever devised is born: which actor appears three times playing two different characters based on the same source material?
Yet another decade passed before the Richard Widmark and Trevor Howard 1956 vehicle, Run for the Sun, again employed the same storyline (still finding a female character was necessary; all subsequent versions lean more heavily on the film than the short story, interestingly) and again using it as a metaphor for WWII.
By now, the films were existing in a world where few of the audience would have been aware that what they were watching was essentially a cover version of the groundbreaking original – more than this, they were given necessarily diluted versions, the censorial threats post-Hays Code meaning that the blunt savagery of the original is lost. What may seem a very modern ugly conceit by filmmakers to overlook their source material was alive and well much longer ago than one may expect. That aside, it would actually take the physical rediscovery of the film in the 1970’s for a new wave of filmmakers to find inspiration in The Most Dangerous Game – aided by the fact that copyright had not been obtained in 1932.
If The Most Dangerous Game seems doomed to be forever the black sheep of the Golden Age of horror, it’s because since the late 1960’s, so many other television and film productions have drunk heartily from its trough without as much as a tip of the hat. Like a filmic Velvet Underground, clearly the people who had seen it went out immediately and made a film… sometimes, almost the same film.
Television was a prime offender, seeing episodes from the obvious – the island-based, Gilligan’s Island and Fantasy Island – to the less immediately fitting Bonanza and The Incredible Hulk. Later visitations were more gracious in saluting their source material: both The Simpsons’ Survival of the Fattest episodes of their annual Treehouse of Horror and American Dad riffed on the film’s set-up whilst still holding the film aloft for praise.
The Most Dangerous Game holds its appeal as audiences will never tire of the rich tyrant, bored of both cheap and expensive thrills, concocting ever-more elaborate games in which the ultimate prize really is the difference between life and death. It would not be too outlandish to assert that the horror torture sub-genre (the Hostel series; Saw et al) sees its roots in the film – rich, bored, disaffected white males finding the only way to get their kicks from the trapping and slow, calculated slaying of unfortunate strays.
More immediately traceable are Peter Watkins’ 1971 social commentary Punishment Park and, straying towards the other end of the scale somewhat, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot (1982). Even later films to be influence include Predator, The Hunger Games and perhaps most successfully, Battle Royale, a film which not only strongly echoes the plot but also the cold-hearted nonchalance at the centre.
Best of all is Peter Collinson’s hugely undervalued Open Season (1974), an unforgiving human-hunting sensorial overload which depicts a broken America at war with itself.
There are some obvious reasons The Most Dangerous Game regularly fails to feature in discussion of 20th Century horror: the huge success of King Kong – we can only wonder how, had this film appeared first, as intended, opinion would have differed; the cast – pre-filming documentation sees both Ray Milland and one Creighton Chaney (Lon Jr to you) listed in the cast – such acting ballast would have served the marketing campaign well. The lack of secured copyright meant that the film was free to pick from at leisure, a factor compounded when a home release finally was considered – cheap, extremely ropey copies were allowed to exist as there were no checks and measures necessary. Even now, only Criterion have attempted anything like a reverential release, though this is now out of print and nowhere near what fans would now expect of a release of such an important film.
Though indirectly, the film’s legacy is hugely significant, it is now time to re-evaluate The Most Dangerous Game. A film which, at the starting pistol of horror films featuring other-worldly and supernatural villains, chose to put Man himself as the epitome of evil; a film which pulls no punches and delivers a genuinely merciless threat; a film which offers no apologies and little redemption. In 1968, a series of clue-ridden letters, “ciphers”, if you will, were sent to local Californian newspapers. In it, a still unknown serial killer, now known as the Zodiac Killer, left his first clue. When unscrambled it read as follows:
“I like killing people because it’s so much fun
It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous game”
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA
A Most Dangerous Timeline – Releases and Influence
January 19th 1924 – Publication of the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell in Colliers
September 16th 1932 – US theatrical release of The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Pichel/Schoedsack)
October 20th 1932 – UK theatrical release
September 23rd 1943 – Featured segment of Suspense radio show. Starred Orson Welles
February 1st 1945 – Featured segment of Suspense radio show. Starred Joseph Cotton
November 23rd 1945 – A Game of Death (dir. Robert Wise)
October 1st 1947 – Aired on radio as part of the adventure anthology, Escape. Starred Paul Frees.
1953 – The Dangerous Game – Short film directed and starring Joseph Marzano
1953 – The 7th Victim – Short story written by Robert Sheckley
July 30th 1956 – Run for the Sun (dir. Roy Boulting)
September 13th 1961 – Bloodlust! (dir. Ralph Brooke)
December 1st 1964 – The 10th Victim (dir. Elio Petri)
November 11th 1966 – The Naked Prey (dir. Cornel Wilde)
November 26th 1966 – Island of the Darned – Episode of television series Get Smart
January 16th 1967 – The Hunter – Episode of television series Gilligan’s Island
September 27th 1967 – Hunter’s Moon – Episode of television series Lost in Space
November 15th 1969 – Arena – Episode of television series Star Trek
October 18th 1970 – Das Millionenspiel (dir. Tom Toelle)
January 1st 1971 – Punishment Park (dir. Peter Watkins)
November 1972 – The Woman Hunt (dir. Eddie Romero)
January 16th 1973 – The Hunter – Episode of television series BonanzaSeptember 11th 1974 – Savages (dir. Lee H. Katzin, based on the 1972 novel Deathwatch by Robb White
November 1st 1974 – Open Season (dir. Peter Collinson)
December 10th 1975 – The Perverse Countess (dir. Jess Franco)
1976 – Seven Women for Satan aka Les week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff (dir. Michel Lemoine)
January 14th 1977 – Pilot episode of television series Fantasy Island
September 1st 1977 – Devil’s Planet – Episode of television series Space: 1999
September 1977 – The Capture – Episode of television series Logan’s Run
December 9th 1979 – The Snare – Episode of television series The Incredible Hulk
October 19th 1982 – Turkey Shoot (dir. Brian Trenchard Smith)
May 27th 1983 – Le Prix du Danger (dir. Yves Boisset)
November 30th 1987 – Deadly Prey (dir. David A. Prior)
December 18th 1987 – Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (dir. Ken Dixon)
January 1st 1988 – Predator (dir. John McTiernan)
October 21st 1988 – Running Man (dir. Paul Michel Glaser)
November 10th 1989 – Survival Quest (dir. Don Coscarelli)
June 24th 1992 – Death Ring (dir. R.L. Kizer)
January 31st 1993 – Captive Pursuit – Episode of television series Star Trek: Deep Space 9
July 1993 – Hunting Party – Novel by Elizabeth Moon
August 20th 1993 – Hard Target (dir. John Woo)
April 15th 1993 – Surviving the Game (dir. Ernest Dickerson)
April 4th 1998 – Dogboys (dir. Ken Russell)
December 16th 2000 – Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku)
June 1st 2001 – Series 7: The Contenders (dir. Daniel Minahan)
February 1st 2004 – The Eliminator (dir. Ken Barbet)
December 18th 2005 – Survival of the Fattest – The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XVI
December 11th 2006 – The Hunt (dir. Fritz Kiersch)
March 7th 2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
April 1st 2007 – Naked Fear (dir. Thom Eberhardt)
April 27th 2007 – The Condemned (dir. Scott Wiper)
September 30th 2007 – The Vacation Goo – Episode of television series American Dad
October 17th 2007 – Trigger Man (dir. Ti West)
January 4th 2008 – Rovdyr (dir. Patrik Syversen)
July 10th 2009 – Paintball (dir. Daniel Benmayor)
July 25th 2010 – The Tournament (dir. Scott Mann)
March 18th 2011 – Blooded (dir. Edward Boase)
March 23rd 2012 – Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross)
January 26th 2016 – El Contador – Episode of television series Archer