RogerBW's Blog

The Most Dangerous Game 04 October 2014

1932, dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack, Joel McCrea, Fay Wray: IMDb / allmovie. Also known as The Hounds of Zaroff for its British release.

A famous hunter is shipwrecked, then makes it to the shore of a supposedly deserted island. But his host has plans for him.

This is the closest that's been attempted to a straight adaptation of Richard Connell's story, and from the first shot it's clear that it's been substantially altered as well as expanded. Rainsford doesn't merely fall overboard; his ship's wrecked, and most of the crew is killed. (False lights to lure ships to their doom are a part of the short story, but they don't show up at this point.) The effects of the shipwreck are remarkably good for the era, and I find it hard to understand the mindset that is thrown out of immersion by such things being less than perfect; mind you, I'm happy to watch black-and-white films in general.

There are lines from the story here, though of course plenty of new ones are inserted; this is an hour of film, and the original doesn't even take that long to read. The main insertion is the brother and sister couple of Martin and Eve Trowbridge; Martin is the Obligatory Comic Relief, complete with nasal Brooklyn accent, while Eve is, well, played by Fay Wray… complete with slightly fuzzy filter, to make her properly luminous in some of her close-ups. She has a little more to do than the typical female role in an adventure film, but we already see some dilution of the qualities and skills of the prey: Eve goes along with Rainsford as quarry and as prize for Zaroff (yes, introducing a female character makes her threatened rape a possibility in these pre-Code years), and while Rainsford's there to hold her hand she's still essentially an un-woodcrafty victim who nonetheless manages to survive. On the other hand, she's a convenient person to have the various lethal traps explained to her.

Those traps work rather less well than in the original; for example, Zaroff spots the "Malay Death Pole" before it injures him at all, rather than escaping from it with only a minor wound. Of course this is somewhat necessary because the action's compressed into one night, rather than the three day span (with time for first aid and rest) of the original.

The great Leslie Banks, in one of his first film roles, is excellent as Zaroff, the lean and menacing class of villain (decaying gradually into overt madness) rather than the bulky threatening sort. He effortlessly dominates the screen whenever he's on it, and it's no wonder he went on to a long career.

The balance of the story is not much altered by the extra characters: Martin goes off to his doom about half-way through the running time (and alas, one inevitably applauds one of those horrid comic relief characters finally getting what's coming to him), and the main hunt starts around the two-thirds mark. The final fight has to be shown rather than elided, of course, and there's a great deal of flailing around with no real science to it. The film barely tops sixty minutes, and never lags.

Direction, inevitably for the period, is fairly static, but there are some decent angles, for example an upward-tilted shot from ground level as the hunting dogs run past, and a couple of dolly shots moving through jungle which from the way they're showcased must have been considered revolutionary at the time. Some of the imagery, particularly the trophy room of severed human heads, is surprisingly grisly (pre-Code, again). The film was made on the sets of King Kong (1933) since the jungle sets had been finished before that production was ready to start shooting, which meant its own budget could go on the miniature work for the shipwreck and the castle; it also shares several members of King Kong's cast.

This Rainsford mentions "Those animals I hunted. Now I know how they felt", and he's just lost all his best friends in the shipwreck; I don't think he'll be rushing back to the jungle any time soon.

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