The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
I can almost hear the eye-rolling from here, what the hell has Minty been savouring his glazzies upon now? Whilst you’ve probably never heard of the little known film The Most Dangerous Game AKA The Hounds Of Zaroff I’m willing to bet cold cash money that you’ve seen at least one film of the sub-adventure-movie-genre that this 1931 curiosity inseminated, a deadly strata of cinema where humans are pitted against each other in some variation of a lethal tournament to the merciless death. These films usually feature some elite-born sneering aristocratic type whom regard the lesser bourgeois beneath him as nothing more than sub-human scum, and bored and jaded of all the diversions of sexual diversions and narcotic excess that immense wealth can procure they look to further extremes of human experience to sate there listless, nihilist boredom. From films as varied as Predator where the stalker is extraterrestrial and Batoru Rowaiaru where the hunters are juvenile, from the ozploitation classic Turkey Shoot to Ahnoldt’s gameshow quips of The Running Man the basic premise is expanded to offer social, political and media critiques. Quite coincidently I recently snared La Decima Vittima for the first time which is a cultish 1960’s pop-art curio which is shrieking for a remake, its quarry being European aristocrats pursuing each other cat-mouse style across the ornately gilded continent, now there’s a film with a cultural target of the 1% which would bullseye a contemporary commentary. Of course when discussing these films one is contractually obliged to mention a certain YA female led franchise which has splattered the premise of gladiatorial fights to the death among prepubescents into an immensely profitable franchise – and people say that the pre-code Hollywood of the 1930’s was sick? Yet this is all an aside as to why I furtively prowled over to the BFI last week to catch this RKO adventure yarn when I saw it materialise on the June BFI schedule, well it was all in my stars you see…..
Allow me to contextualize this – this might take a while so please be patient. I’m not alone among the movie nerd community to labour with a fairly lengthy watch-list, a collection of films I own on various formats which I simply haven’t got around to screening. These are films I’ve usually picked up in some special on-line boxed set deal or dirt cheap from a second-hand shop, once acquired they are carelessly tossed on the pile to collect dust as other material arrives in the post or gets released in the cinemas. 99% of this material will be pre-viewed pictures but like some I have a second tier shelf of similar groaning importance, the DVD’s and Blu-rays with some combination of director, cast and producer commentaries which I also haven’t got round to absorbing. Well, during my recent break between assignments I made a herculean effort to attack these lists and managed to reduce them by half during an intense month of activity, including not one but two investigations of the 2007 procedural classic Zodiac, including a stand-alone commentary from director David Fincher and a second marvellous dissection of the film by screenwriter , stars Jake Glyenthall and Robert Downey Jr., brilliantly accompanied by LA chronicler James Ellroy, the rabidly ravenous of
A key moment of the film, seen above, is where the obsessive suddenly finds himself in a potentially compromising position with a projectionist whom screened The Most Dangerous Game a few times over his career, the twist being that the Zodiac killer included quotes from the film in his correspondence with the authorities and in the case above a potential handwriting match suddenly lurches the investigation into potentially lethal territory – it’s a great scene which lingers in the memory so when I coincidentally saw the associated movie appear on the schedule a sense of ominous providence arose, and I figured I’d have to give it a go. From a movie fan perspective the film is also faintly fascinating as it was shot on the RKO lot by the same directors and producers, on the same sets with much of the same cast as a rather more memorable monster movie of the period, the gargantuan classic King Kong. That DNA is also intertwined with The Most Dangerous Game in other ways, both films featured rather arrogant white upper class douches being shipwrecked in the Caribbean, the decay of morals and civilisation when sequestered away from civilisation centres, the primal heartbeat of the unforgiving jungle.
As is par for the elderly course this competition won’t be everyone given the genre specifications and technical conventions of the period, but if you look past the stilted conventions and stilted camera work there is a nucleus of excitement here which bloomed into its own sub-genre, Fay Wray is a shrieking delight and movie fans will admire Joel Mcrea’s lantern jammed big game hunter who stoically turns the table on his predator, but by far the highlight of the film is the absolutely absurd performance of Leslie Banks as the titular Count Zaroff, if you thought Lugosi was a terrible ham in the 1930’s it’s a little odd he wasn’t cast in the role which was perfect for him) then you haven’t witnessed Banks moustache twirling lunacy, complete with tendentious line readings, barking laughter and poised and pondering line readings which are punctuated by violent clashes of exterior lightning – cliché, know thyself. At a snappy 63 minutes it spears its quarry long before any exhaustion sets in, as always yes it’s horrifically dated in terms of pacing, of genuine excitement or action construction but make no mistake Pichel & Schoedsack were the Neveldine & Taylor of their period, shocking audiences with a brutal assault on bourgeois attitudes with a keen eye for lurid implications of sex and violence. Zaroff himself takes an almost masochistic sexual thrill at the thought of stalking and slaying his victims, he is silently supported by a retinue of mute and presumably catamite henchmen, and at one point Fay Wray lets one observe a positively pornographic two second flash of her unsheathed ankle – dear reader, I almost fainted and was only revived to full consciousness by the soothing revitalizing balm of a passing physicians smelling salts.
As usual with films of this period the entire adventure is in the public domain and can be observed at your loquacious leisure, I enjoyed it as a genre completest with this screening of a fairly robust print, but I can’t say I’d have it stuffed and mounted in the study as a tribute to another magnificent triumph. I have had some fun revising so-called ‘human-hunting’ films, I forgot about A Lonely Place To Die which is a UK-based effort from a couple of years ago and the brilliantly named Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity looks suitably depraved to appeal to my base tastes. So here is some exciting news for all predatory fans – I can’t imagine a better duo than Black and Dekker (heh) to
reassemble resurrect the franchise after the bloody awful Predators a few years back, more BFI themed fun is on the way but until then watch your back;