One Halloween, I was looking for a lurid and creepy pre-code film to recommend. I was tempted by White Zombie but like many films of the period, the existing prints are sadly too beaten up to make the film an enjoyable experience. But then I found a movie that is not only better purely on its merits but has also been skillfully restored: 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game.
Joel McCrea plays a big game hunter who is travelling by yacht in the South Seas. As the ship nears a remote island surrounded by dangerous reefs, the light buoys seem to have been misplaced: They actually lead the ship into the rocks, causing it to sink with all hands aboard other than our hero. He makes his way to a fog-shrouded castle where Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) welcomes him warmly, introducing himself as a fellow hunter. Zaroff has two other guests, the alluring Eve (Fay Wray) and her boozy brother Martin (William Armstrong). Zaroff used to have two other guests, but they disappeared shortly after he gave them a tour of his trophy room. Would you like to come down and see the prizes from his prior hunts?
Based on a story by Richard Connell that has since been re-used in movies and TV shows a million times, this version is closest to the original material. At a briskly paced 62 minutes, it’s both chilling and thrilling. And for film buffs, added interest is provided by the pre-code elements of sadism, sexual exploitation, gruesome violence and some disturbing “trophies” (There are ethnic stereotypes too, but that was okay with the Hays, Breen and the other people who implemented Hollywood’s Production code).
For me, the early 1930’s most hypnotic and frightening portrayal of a villain with an Eastern European accent isn’t Lugosi’s Dracula, it’s Leslie Banks as the depraved Zaroff. This was Banks’ first film and he is magnetic in a role that could easily have been campy. A injured World War I veteran with a scarred face, Banks’ disfigurement is integrated with his character and gestures in highly effective fashion. The leer Banks gives Wray when telling her that “love” will follow the hunt makes the viewer want to bathe immediately.
Ms. Wray alas is at best okay. At times she overdoes it to an extent that I wonder if she thought it was a silent film. She is mainly there to be lusted after and as her clothing is ripped away during sweaty sprints through the jungle. McCrea is agreeably strong-jawed if not playing a character with much depth. But their performances aren’t critical for a film that is really about a breathless, suspenseful chase, and it delivers the goods on that score in spades. One of the good things about such a short running time is that tension can be maintained through almost the entire movie, as the grip marks in the chair armrests of viewers will prove.
You may notice that co-Director Ernest Schoedsack, score composer Max Steiner and many of the actors were involved in making King Kong and that some of the sets and camera shots look like they are from that famous movie. That’s because the two films were shot at the same time, with the actors being borrowed for Kong in the middle of making The Most Dangerous Game (which funnily enough was more profitable because it had a much lower budget).
The restoration has removed almost all the scratches and damage, and the sound quality is very good. Kudos to the magnificent restorers of Flicker Alley for letting a new generation of film fans enjoy this fine example of pre-code cinema, which otherwise might have literally faded away.