Ernest Schoedsack and Merian Cooper’s companion piece to their epochal King Kong, shot on many of the same sets and intended to help defray the costs of their bigger production, is certainly the lesser film. A point which doesn’t mean so much in such a context, especially considering it’s possibly been just as influential as that film, with several official remakes and plentiful imitations, including Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, the John Woo-ised Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and sci-fi variant Predator. With direction credited to Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, it confirms that a lot of King Kong’s brilliance lay in Cooper’s unerring, huckster sense of breathless hype, and Max Steiner's what-the-hell score, neither of which are in long supply here. The Most Dangerous Game is distinctly calmer and slower to get going, and not as dynamic and fiendishly bizarre when it does.
Richard Connell’s prize-winning short story was however a tough act to follow, presenting a narrative of almost perfect, Shavian form and brevity. The Most Dangerous Game finds famous big-game hunter and travel writer Bob Rainsford finds himself cast away when the yacht of a rich friend smashes against a reef near a South Pacific island after the captain is fooled by misplaced light buoys. He swims to shore, and finds himself the guest of his émigré Russian counterpart, Count Zaroff, who has become bored with animal hunting and now taken up stalking two-legged prey, having made his island hideaway into a perfect stalking ground, and arranging strong, hardy candidates by shifting the lights that mark the channel.
The adaptation adds some company for Rainsford (Joel McCrea) and Zaroff (Leslie Banks), in the shape of a love interest and figure of immediate sympathy, Eve (Fay Wray) and her boozy, garrulous brother Martin (Robert Armstrong), but for the most part keeps the story’s structure intact, with Zaroff hinting at his elegantly perverted obsessions during a lengthy, slow-burn scene in which he guests know very well something is wrong but must play the charade to its end, as prelude to a protracted life-and-death struggle. With a visual intensity and inherently propulsive drama to match Kong, The Most Dangerous Game also plays as a fitting thematic variant.
A recurring image in Zaroff’s bastion is that of a satyr clutching a bare-breasted, victimised maiden, for whom Wray provides ready embodiment. But rather than a colossal projected beast of the id in the shape of a giant monkey, the satyr here is certainly Zaroff himself, speaking with anticipation of the revels that come after the hunt, punctuated with his meaningful appreciation of Wray’s form and her gulping, wide-eyed certainty of his intent. A bleakly sadistic streak lies underneath Zaroff’s playing courtly host, as he shrugs off Martin’s over-friendly, liquor-sodden demeanour, even allowing him to lean on him with a tipsy, friendly arm wrapped about his shoulder. Once Rainsford and Eve have gone to their rooms, Zaroff then invites him to see the trophy room where he keeps his victims’ heads, his gambit for informing and inspiring his next quarry, plainly relishing the opportunity to slaughter the presumptuous Yank.
The screenplay bolsters Zaroff’s hardened, callous attitude to life formed in war and exile, as essayed in the story, with a more fashionably psychological touch, in suggesting he’s been unbalanced by a head wound, which he often strokes and reacts to like a familiar, driving him to indulge the depths of his broken psyche. Nonetheless, he is every inch the Old Europe villain, a reactionary imperialist with a cabal of various ethnic thugs (including, amusingly, Noble Johnson as a Cossack) to do his bidding, and a former Portuguese colonial fort filled with the accoutrement of the ancien regime, whilst one of Martin’s impertinences is to insist he play a “good tune” and none of that “highbrow stuff” he’s given to banging out on the piano. Surrounded by inelegant Americans, Zaroff wraps himself in the trappings of a civilisation he makes a mockery of, and yet subtly confirms that tradition as based on a history of repression, victimisation, and self-serving cruelty. The dense jungle, fog-clogged swamp, vine-crusted cliffs and titanic waterfalls of the island are vividly overdrawn as a perfect fantasy turf, in which the thinly civil veneers of Rainsford and Zaroff peel away, and they enact an elemental war to stake their claim to life and female. Rainsford, after refusing to become Zaroff’s partner in systematised murder, is forced nonetheless to set deadly traps for Zaroff and his aides and match him on his own errantly savage level.
The film’s force is however hampered by a script that isn’t all that persuasive, sporting some obvious dialogue (“Now I know how all those animals I hunted felt,” Rainsford inevitably comments) and thinly developed characters in a scenario that doesn’t quite make the most of the dark parallels it hints at. The dualism of Rainsford and Zaroff – both are haunted veterans of WWI in the story, and each is defined by his own understanding of the genteel sportsman's ideal – which Connell described with care is muted in favour of clearer moral boundaries: McCrea inhabits his role with an uncomplicated, one-dimensional demeanour befitting a cowboy hero, in which McCrea’s most suited career lay ahead. He lacks convincing outrage and guilty conscience in seeing his own philosophy of life taken to grotesque extremes, and any real hint of existential desperation in his efforts to stay alive. But the stickiest point is Banks’ severe miscasting as Zaroff: the mind boggles what the thought of Erich von Stroheim or Boris Karloff might have done with the role that Banks fudges with a weirdly unspecific Slavic lisp and bug-eyed evocation of psychotic malice. Banks was generally a smooth, avuncular leading man in British movies, and he’s not convincing or memorable as a noble sadist.
Nonetheless, once the chase starts, Schoedsack’s staging takes off, offering some brilliant high-paced tracking shots in following McCrea and Wray’s frantic flight through the jungle. Innovative camera flourishes pepper the film, especially in a rapid descending dolly shot from Eve’s perspective, closing in on Zaroff’s face as she realises his distinctly dishonourable intentions, and the technical effects, with good model work and dramatic matte environs, were of a very high calibre for the time. The scenes in the murky depths of the swamp, crawling with alligators and Rainsford’s lethal devices waiting to puncture the unwary, the baying, racing hounds, and the confrontation above a colossal cataract, are gothic adventure at its purest, and although the very end lacks Connell’s mordant off-handedness, the film maintains a serial-like pithiness right to the last frame.