Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Most Dangerous Game directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack (starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong)

The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman from "The Most Dangerous Game" — the "O. Henry Award Winning Collection Story by Richard Connell." (I wonder if the wording of that billing was in his contract.)

This Ernest B. Schoedsack / Merian C. Cooper production (executive produced by David O. Selznick) was made while the special effects were being done on the pair's previous film, King Kong (released the next year because of the complexity of those effects), using some of the same sets and a few of the cast and crew.

Big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), on his way to an expedition, is shipwrecked on an uncharted island owned by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks in his film debut), another hunter of bigger game. Rainsford is kept prisoner with Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray in a low-cut dress) and her drunk brother Martin (Robert Armstrong, playing a deliberately annoying inebriate during Prohibition), and Bob has to survive the night of "outdoor chess," being hunted by Zaroff, with Eve as his prize (gotta love those pre-Codes!).

What was a riveting portrait of man against man in its original form becomes a bloated waste on film, even at just over 60 minutes. The first 10 minutes of The Most Dangerous Game are mostly laughable, with incredibly heavyhanded foreshadowing: dialogue like "The queen of spades? That's the third time tonight." And with McCrea delivering "There are two kinds of people in this world, the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm a hunter and nothing can ever change that" just as the ship crashes. (In fact, 40 minutes passes of this hour-long film before the actual hunt even begins.)

Max Steiner's score emphasizes every melodramatic touch, and the over-the-top performance of Leslie Banks (acting with eyes of fire) requires the usually subtle McCrea to overemote just to avoid being blown off the screen. Look out for his "revelation" later in the film: "Those animals I killed, now I know how they felt."

Remade as A Game of Death in 1945 and Run for the Sun (with Richard Widmark) in 1956, and also expanded into novel-length as Hunted Past Reason by Richard Matheson, The Most Dangerous Game actually managed to be about as profitable as the far superior King Kong due to its smaller budget. But the jokey script and overblown acting make it far less entertaining than it should be (though Armstrong provides some occasional comic relief).

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