The original short story by Richard Connell is apparently one of the most anthologised of all time. It was first published in 1924 and it's sometimes also called The Hounds of Zaroff. On top of that, it's been turned into a truly ridiculous number of films. Hold your breath:
- The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
- A Game of Death (1945)
- The Dangerous Game (1953)
- Run for the Sun (1956)
- Bloodlust! (1961)
- The Naked Prey (1966)
- The Woman Hunt (1973)
- Mottomo kiken na yuugi (1978)
- Turkey Shoot (1982)
- Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987)
- Deadly Prey (1988)
- Lethal Woman (1988)
- Hard Target (1993)
- Surviving the Game (1994)
- The Pest (1997)
...not counting all the films, comic books and TV episodes which are riffing off the same idea. You'll be able to think of about a gazillion. Predator would be an SF equivalent, for instance. A big game hunter finds himself trapped on an island where a second hunter has hit upon the idea of hunting people. You can work out the rest for yourself. The hunter has become the hunted!
This is all very well, but it's not particularly sophisticated. You're probably imagining this movie to be pulp nonsense and indeed it is, pretty much. However there are a few reasons why one might want to seek out this particular adaptation rather than one with more graphic violence and a better chance of having naked women in it. (Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity sounds promising.) To start with, this is the first of all those movie versions and apparently the only one to use Connell's original characters, although they've changed the lead's first name. Secondly, it seems to be quite well regarded in comparison to the others.
Thirdly and most importantly though, it was made in 1932 and hence is pre-Code. All bets are thus off. Leslie Banks's Count Zaroff talks of women being the reward of a successful hunt, then takes this several steps further by saying he'll rape Fay Wray after he's killed Joel McCrea. What's more, in a pre-Code film there's no guarantee that this won't happen. This isn't a complicated film, but every so often I'd assume I knew how the story would unfold and was proved wrong. Intriguingly there was even originally a 78-minute preview cut of the film that was gruesome enough to have audiences heading for the exit, so the nastier bits got cut. I'd have loved to have seen that. We'd have had even more severed heads (always a good thing), plus a couple of stuffed and mounted sailors with graphic dialogue from Zaroff describing how they died. Zaroff has a trophy room. Heh heh.
It was shot back-to-back with King Kong on the same Skull Island sets, although RKO didn't release that movie until the following year. King Kong would shoot during the day, then The Most Dangerous Game at night. You'll also recognise some shared cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson. Oddly enough, this film was the more profitable of the two for RKO, because it was so cheap to make ($200,000).
Acting-wise, it's mostly naturalistic and holds up better in that regard than some other 1932 films. The most notable name in the cast as far as I'm concerned is Fay Wray, who'll always be famous for King Kong although that's just one film in a long career. She worked from 1923 to 1965, not counting a TV episode in 1980. Here she's good without being brilliant, although I was distracted by the jungle chase scene in which her dress seemed to be falling off. However the name I was supposed to mention there was Leslie Banks, who'd been an international stage star and one of the most popular British actors on Broadway through most of the 1920s. He's very watchable and clearly having fun, but this was unfortunately his screen debut and so he's still got a bit to learn about (a) movie acting, (b) sight lines, and (c) accents. The latter in particular is a must-watch for connoisseurs of bad accents in movies. He's supposedly Russian. Ahahaha, no.
Incidentally, the injury to his face you can see here was real. He'd got it in World War One and it paralysed the left-hand side of his face, but it seems his career didn't suffer because of it. On the contrary, he'd exploit it when playing villains, as for instance here.
The rest of the acting is all fine. Joel McCrea plays the lead and seems to have ended up in a million Westerns. Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in King Kong) is supposedly Fay Wray's brother, but is doing a completely different accent from her. His drunken character is supposed to be annoying, incidentally. This was the Prohibition era and the film's producer, Merian C. Cooper, disliked alcohol being glamourised in movies, which might also be behind the negative consequences of drunkenness seen in Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. The most surprising cast member though is Noble Johnson, a black man playing a Russian Cossack in whiteface makeup and a gigantic beard. He's hilarious! At first I thought he was Bela Lugosi. It sounds as if Johnson was a really interesting and multi-talented guy, incidentally, and from films made in this year alone you can also see him in King Kong and The Mummy.
As a piece of film-making, it's solid. The early action sequence of the boat going down is excellently done, despite the obvious model, while the only disappointing bit was ironically the hunt itself. Joel McCrea sets traps that a five-year-old wouldn't fall for, then Banks doesn't fall for them. Oooooh. However what it lacks in action movie adrenaline, it makes up for in cool visuals. This is Skull Island, after all. Count Zaroff must have set up some kind of industrial water pumping to maintain that gigantic waterfall on what's said in dialogue to be a tiny island, but the important thing is that it looks amazing. Just as cool are the swamps, the mists and most surprisingly the crocodile. There's a shot in the film where the actors randomly have to run past a crocodile. You wouldn't have caught me trespassing on the set that day.
All the dialogue scenes are great, though. It's also quite well thought through, e.g. the reason for Zaroff's trophy room. Oh, and I love Zaroff's fortress and his taste in interior decoration. That doorknocker actually made me laugh.
You wouldn't call this a classic movie. I called it pulp nonsense and I'd stand by that, but it's also pretty good pulp nonsense from a brief but fascinating era of cinema, with awesome sets and a cool villain. It's a quickie, running barely more than an hour, but that's in no way a bad thing. If you're looking for pre-Code movies to watch (and you should be), then you could do a lot worse.