The Most Dangerous Game (1932) makes the point that “less is more” in a film dependent on a little bit of psychology, a little bit of horror, a little bit of vodka, and a memorable journey in only 63 minutes.
The story of shipwreck survivors hunted for sport on the island “no bigger than a deer park” owned by a madman is by now well known and has been resurrected on several occasions.
It’s hard to discern just what alchemy provides the irresistible quality of adventure in this short movie, with a setting like a Terry and the Pirates cartoon. The hunter’s horn theme haunts the film, but what defines the study of hunters and the hunted, of civilization and savagery is illustrated in the most simple ways. The survivors share cocktails as they recount the harrowing tales of their shipwreck experiences to their mysterious but charming host, Count Zaroff, who entertains them with panache and dignity in his evening clothes. He is well educated, well read, and plays classical music on a grand piano in the great hall of his medieval fortress.
The movie really belongs to Leslie Banks, in only his second film, as Count Zaroff, who masterfully seduces the funny buffoon played by Robert Armstrong, the good guy and fellow hunter Joel McCrea, and the lovely Fay Wray, and most especially, the audience. Miss Wray probably owned a patent on the damsel in distress role. Her trying to warn McCrea’s character of her suspicions about Count Zaroff, as she purposely knocks over a drink onto McCrea, “I didn’t realize the DANGER,” is suspenseful, but futile.
What I love best about the film are the small touches used to illustrate big things and big ideas. McCrea discovers the depth of Zaroff’s madness and attempts to escape, but not before he takes the time to put on his tie. He is civilized, after all. When he meets Wray’s character to sneak away from their captivity, she is wearing an evening gown. Evidently no tea-length day dress will do. This is going to be an heroic escape, and they have to look their best.
Actually, McCrea’s tie comes in handy later as a trip line for his laboriously constructed Malay Dead Fall trap, which doesn’t work. Other traps fail to catch Zaroff as well, and one wonders if Miss Wray’s method of just screaming and running isn’t the best line of defense. However, soon their faces are shining with sweat, their clothes are dirty and torn, which makes a terrific contrast to their natty appearance earlier in the film. We believe their wretchedness more than if they had started out in combat gear.
The terrific sets are evocative of a time and place lost to civilization, and many of the sets were used on RKO’s King Kong, which also starred Wray and Armstrong, released the following year. It was the Depression, after all -- waste not, want not. The danger for McCrea is death, and for Fay Wray, rape. As Zaroff bellows his mantra, “Kill, then love. When you have known that, you have known ecstasy.” It is a perverted philosophy, but deliciously believable in a character who dresses in white tie and tails, strokes the nasty scar on his forehead (which is intended to indicate to us his madness), though in this black and white film, no blood is ever required. We know the stakes. We don’t need to be hit over the head. We hang on for the ride, and the surprising ending.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally. Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.