The Curmudgeon


Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Most Dangerous Game

Ernest B Schoedsack & Irving Pichel 1932

The original 1933 version of King Kong is, of course, a Hollywood classic. It has everything: a beautiful heroine, spectacular special effects, an inane plot, spectacular special effects, cardboard characters, spectacular special effects, a dim-witted but pretentious script, and spectacular special effects. No wonder everyone still loves it.

The Most Dangerous Game was shot back-to-back with King Kong, partly on the same jungle sets, by a team that included many of the same personnel - co-director Ernest Schoedsack, screenwriter James Creelman, composer Max Steiner and star Fay Wray. It lacks almost all the advantages of King Kong. Its effects are restrained, its performances largely professional, its characters complex, and Wray gets to act as well as scream; nevertheless, there are one or two points in its favour.

Closely adapted from an award-winning story by Richard Connell, the plot concerns an American adventurer and big-game hunter, Robert Rainsford (Sanger Rainsford in the original; apparently the name was too sanguinary for a film hero) whose relaxing yacht cruise with his playboy friends is violently interrupted when the ship is wrecked. Fortuitously spared by the sharks which finish off all the other survivors, Rainsford (played by Joel McCrea) manages to swim ashore to a small island, where he hears the sound of a hunting horn and, later, the screams of some strange animal.

The island, it transpires, is the home of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Cossack general who has the obligatory monstrous mute servant (called, for a change, Ivan and not Igor) and a consuming passion for the hunt. A tapestry on the wall next to the spiral staircase in his castle depicts a wounded satyr, with Zaroff's own face, bearing a helpless maiden in his arms. "Kill, then love," the general says; "when you have known that, you have known ecstasy." Rainsford, though his phrasing is less plummy, seems to agree.

This sexual theme is missing from the original story, in which Rainsford and Zaroff are the only protagonists; in the film, Zaroff has preserved a couple of other survivors from a previous shipwreck. Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) is an irritating, inebriated version of Rainsford's late friends aboard the yacht; but his sister Eve (Fay Wray) manages to drop several hints to Rainsford that Zaroff's lavish hospitality is not offered entirely in an altruistic spirit. A couple of sailors who were wrecked with them have mysteriously disappeared; and the general's own boat, which would otherwise be at their disposal for transport to the mainland, is, unfortunately, under repair.

In the presence of Rainsford, whose hunting prowess he deeply respects, Zaroff is happy to explain himself. His own passion for the hunt, he says, had become self-defeating; there was no animal that could best him. Even when he tried to increase the odds against himself by using primitive weapons, he always won - although one opponent did manage to give him an impressive scar on the forehead, to which his hand unconsciously strays when Rainsford innocently mentions the "strange beast" he heard howling when he arrived. The hunt, which was all the Count had lived for, was beginning to bore him. He needed a new animal to hunt - one that could reason.
"But, General, no animal can do that."
"My dear fellow, there is one that can."

After a trip to the trophy room, where the general takes his guests to convince them of his seriousness, Rainsford and Eve find themselves playing Zaroff's "outdoor chess". The general is scrupulous: having arranged their shipwreck, he always ensures his opponents are in the best of condition, and supplies them with hunting clothes and a knife. If they elude him for a day, they are free. Rainsford, who on his friend's yacht had claimed that hunting is a fair fight between equally matched opponents, is at first unconvinced that this is altogether a sporting proposition; but before long his instinct for the game overcomes his moral outrage. When, during one of the few quiet moments in the chase, he tells Eve: "Those animals I killed - now I know how they felt," his tone is decidedly ambiguous.

In the final shot, the dying Zaroff falls from his window to "furnish a repast for the hounds", as the story has it, while in the distance a boat carries Rainsford and Eve to safety. The end credits, like those at the start, play over an image of the castle's massive door-knocker - the satyr, bearing the helpless maiden. Given the constant changes of role between hunter and hunted, Zaroff and Rainsford, there is room for doubt as to just how happy this ending is - at least for Eve, the prize.


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