The Most Dangerous Game
Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game
After one has stalked and hunted lions, tigers and bears, what can top that for danger and excitement? The answer lies in Richard Connell's tale, "The Hounds of Zaroff." Written in 1924, it is one of the most famous American short stories of all time and has been the inspiration for numerous films and movie remakes. The best known version, however, is the first, released in 1932 under the story's alternate title, The Most Dangerous Game. Produced by Merian C. Cooper and co-directed by his business partner Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, it was made at RKO simultaneously alongside Cooper's dream project, King Kong (1933), utilizing many of the same cast and crew and even some of the same sets.
The film opens as a yacht carrying big game hunter Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) and other passengers enters shark-infested waters in a remote part of the Caribbean. Without warning, the yacht hits a coral reef and sinks with only Rainsford surviving the sharks and the treacherous waters to make it to shore on a nearby island. He goes to get help at a castle near the shore and encounters Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) and his two houseguests Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) and his sister Eve (Fay Wray). Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat who fled his country during the Soviet revolution, has used his fortune to create a private island fortress and hunting preserve far removed from civilization. When Zaroff learns that his newly arrived "guest" is the famous game hunter whose books he has read, he can barely contain his excitement and, in due time, Rainsford learns why. The shipwreck was no accident. Zaroff has been luring boats into his seemingly safe harbour only to sink them on the reef and capture the survivors. They are then forced to play a deadly game where they are given a head start and then hunted down and killed by Zaroff whose skill with the bow and arrow is matchless. The same fate awaits Martin, Eve and Robert and the odds for survival look slim.
In many ways, The Most Dangerous Game was a test run for Cooper and Schoedsack's King Kong and shared some of the same actors (Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente) as well as editor Archie E. Marshek, composer Max Steiner and screenwriter James Ashmore Creelman who altered Connell's story by adding the character of Eve who was not in the original. The film also contained insider references to some of the adventures Cooper and Schoedsack had experienced in their own lives such as the opening shipwreck (a reference to the sabotage that sent their boat Wisdom II aground) and the deadly animal traps Robert constructs (modeled on devices Schoedsack had used while hunting in Siam).
According to biographer Mark Cotta Vaz in Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, "Dangerous Game, which began production on May 16, 1932, would overlap with Production No. 601: Kong, which began filming under the working title of The Beast. Cooper was shrewdly getting a double bang for his buck by using the Zaroff jungle set for the Skull Island scenes he was simultaneously shooting for the Kong test reel. The Dangerous Game set, built on Stage 12 at the RKO-Pathe lot in Culver City, included a swamp, a trail and a cave, the Malay deadfall trap, and a ravine bridged by a fallen tree, all of which could be rearranged to expand the illusion of a wild, rambling landscape...Orvillee Goldner and George Turner write that with The Most Dangerous Game, Cooper and Schoedsack reached an apotheosis in setting a "thrilling pace" that recalled Chang  and was to become forever emblematic of the Cooper-Schoedsack style...Editor Archie Marshek recalled that during the filming, Schoedsack literally timed the actors to the second; a thirty-second scene in rehearsal might be speeded up to twenty for the final take. It would become the model for the cutting of King Kong."
The Most Dangerous Game was eagerly awaited by filmgoers who had seen the duo's previous collaboration, The Four Feathers (1929) with Richard Arlen and Fay Wray, one of the last silent films deemed a commercial success prior to the coming of sound. Cooper and Schoedsack had established a reputation for delivering fast, action packed entertainments and Dangerous Game, their first sound feature, was fluid and cinematic compared to most of the early stagebound and excessively verbose "talkies." It was also made before the Code was enforced so the film doesn't flinch from depicting Zaroff as a sexual deviant whose bloodlust is aroused by the hunt. Nor does it ignore the more sadistic aspects of the story including one grotesque scene showcasing Zaroff's trophy room complete with human heads mounted on the wall and floating in water filled tanks. According to IMDB, "The trophy room scenes were originally much longer: there were more heads in jars. But there was also an emaciated sailor, stuffed and mounted next to a tree where he was impaled by Zaroff's arrow, and another full-body figure stuffed, with the bodies of two of the hunting dogs mounted in a death grip."
Leslie Banks, in his first major role, makes a particularly creepy Zaroff, constantly stroking the scar that runs across his forehead and symbolizes his split personality of sophisticated host and maniacal killer. In real life, Banks had been wounded in the First World War resulting in a partially paralyzed face on his right side and it makes him an even more disturbing presence when photographed at certain angles by cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard. As the hero, Joel McCrea registers the right mixture of naiveté, shocked disbelief and grim determination, eventually going against his own abhorrence of unnecessary violence and even resorting to dirty tricks to stay alive. Thanks to his previous feature, the exotic Bird of Paradise (1932), McCrea was now established as one of the more popular leading men of the early sound era and The Most Dangerous Game was another major success for him. Fay Wray, on the other hand, has a much less clearly defined role here but when it comes to the action sequences - running, falling, jumping and, of course, screaming - she has no equal and she always manages to look sexy even after staggering through jungle undergrowth and swamps.
For film reviewers who were not put off by the film's horrific storyline, The Most Dangerous Game garnered mostly enthusiastic notices. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote "Through the imaginative fashion in which it has been produced, together with its effective staging and a note-worthy performance by Leslie Banks, the fantastic theme of The Most Dangerous Game...makes a highly satisfactory melodrama. It has the much-desired virtue of originality, which, in no small measure, compensates for some of its gruesome ideas and its weird plot...Mr. Banks makes this strange Count really interesting. In fact his portrayal is so good that both Joel McCrea and Fay Wray...are quite over-shadowed." A more astute reading of the film appears in The Encyclopedia of Horror Films: "This is one of the most authentically sadean films ever made...It takes only a very short stretch of the imagination to see the fiendishly megalomaniac Zaroff as a prototype fuehrer who even lists the members of inferior races who have fallen to his strength, but it seems more likely that, as with White Zombie (1932), the film's reference point is American isolationist fears during the Depression, with Zaroff, like Lugosi's Murder Legendre, symbolizing decadent Europe."
Originally leopards were going to be used in the film by Banks to track down McCrea and Wray but when that concept didn't work out they used Great Danes borrowed from comedian Harold Lloyd.
Other film versions of The Most Dangerous Game include A Game of Death (1945), directed by Robert Wise, Richard Widmark vs. Trevor Howard in Run for the Sun (1956), the low-budget Bloodlust! (1961), The Woman Hunt (1973), which was shot in the Philippines, the Australian body count thriller Turkey Shoot (1982) and Surviving the Game (1994) with Ice-T and Rutger Hauer, among others.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, David O. Selznick
Director: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Screenplay: Richard Connell, James Ashmore Creelman
Cinematography: Henry Gerrard
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar).
by Jeff Stafford
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Cult Movies by Karl French & Philip French