Originally a short story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game is the progenitor of pretty much every “man hunting man” story – from The Hunger Games and Battle Royale to the Predator films and most recently something like The Hunt. As Kim Newman says in the commentary track for this Blu-ray release from Eureka, it’s a premise that has “gone beyond being a story that has adaptations into being an idea that has variations.”
When he finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck in shark-infested waters, big-game hunter Rainsford (Joel McCrea) swims to an isolated island where he discovers a mansion hidden in the rainforest. Inhabited by hunting enthusiast Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), Rainsford is introduced to survivors of another shipwreck, siblings Eve and Martin Trowbridge (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong). Zaroff thinks he has found a kindred spirit in Rainsford, and confides in him his unusual hobby of hunting “the most dangerous game.”
Released a year after Tod Browning’s Dracula and with a definite horror aesthetic, it’s a testament to the script and Banks’ performance that he never feels like a mere knock-off of Bela Lugosi, despite the clear similarities – their introduction scenes are shot almost identically.
As the sinister Zaroff, Leslie Banks is one of cinema’s most subtly chilling villains. A star of the theatre, Banks was one of Britain’s most interesting actors who was scarred by nerve gas in World War One, leaving half his face permanently paralyzed. His distinctive appearance could easily have seen him typecast in villainous roles, but his gentle speaking voice made him equally adept at playing leading men, in films like The Man Who Knew Too Much. His best performances combine his disarming look with his effortlessly urbane manner. Went The Day Well? remains his greatest role, playing the quisling town squire in league with the Nazis, but The Most Dangerous Game shows that he could easily have made a career playing a more classic kind of villain. Sophisticated, elegant and utterly ruthless, he essentially provides the template for every James Bond villain.
Joel McCrea is charismatic if not particularly subtle as the musclebound hero, while Fay Wray brings real intelligence and resourcefulness to her role – she’s not just a damsel in distress as in King Kong. From her first appearance, she shows that she’s only too aware of something sinister going on. What’s interesting to me is how comparatively natural all the central performances are, especially when compared to other horror films of the era. The exception is Robert Armstrong as the drunken Martin, but even he is given a bit of nuance, and his final scene with Banks is filled with tragic irony.
Shot simultaneously with King Kong, the film makes use of several of the same sets, with production filming at night time so as to avoid overlap. Sharing co-stars Wray and Armstrong, as well as reusing sound effects, The Most Dangerous Game often feels like a B-Movie accompaniment to the more famous film, albeit one that is just as influential.
There’s no better way to celebrate the film’s 90th anniversary than with this release. Having lapsed into the public domain for years, it’s a real treat to see the film as it was originally intended and remastered from a 2K print. There are a handful of truly impressive directorial flourishes that are truly impressive, including a a beautifully framed final shot and a frenetic, apparently handheld POV shot that really works in heightening the tension of the chase scene. There is also some particularly disturbing imagery – such as the tour of Zaroff’s gruesome trophy room – that recalls similar scenes in other pre-code horror films like The Black Cat, The Old Dark House and Freaks.
It’s an efficient, lean film with a run-time of just over an hour, meaning it never outstays its welcome. A minor masterpiece of pre-code cinema, with a relentlessly thrilling plot, witty, natural performances and some creative choices that belie its B-Movie aesthetic. Simply put, it’s a much much better film than it needed to be.
This release comes packed with extras including a commentary with author Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; new retrospectives of the film from Stephen Thrower and Newman again, who painstakingly goes through the “hunted human” sub-genre; plus several radio adaptations of the story.