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The Most Dangerous Game

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Even though hunting for sport is mostly met with disapproval now, it speaks volumes when a prominent narrative evaluation written a century ago is still relevant. Featuring an intensely argumentative examination of hunting ethics, it’s no surprise that the short story is still widely circulated. The philosophical dialogues in the movie do seem a little tacky, but it’s only because they’re purposefully at the forefront. The movie is an entertaining romp, but it seems to be more of an analysis with a story to underpin it, rather than just a thriller plot with a perfunctory message. Maybe I’m the only one who sees it this way though, since everything I read about the film seems to skip over the commentary.

The argument revolves around the moral uncertainty of hunting for sport. Though Bob (our prototypical Hollywood protagonist) justifies his own hunting ventures, he does seem to be painted as naively inconsiderate. His character arc could be seen as the crux of the movie’s message. He initially has no qualms about hunting animals with inferior means of defense, but getting a taste of his own medicine no doubt leads to further consideration from the audience. The film does this without outright condemning big-game hunts; there are characters that vicariously speak for numerous views.

The basic plot revolves around Bob, a noted big game hunting advocate, as he’s suddenly shipwrecked in the proximity of a remote island. His only resort becomes a creepy estate that could double as Dracula’s summer retreat. Zaroff, the Count in charge of the estate, welcomes his strategically shipwrecked guests with a classy demeanor. As it turns out, Zaroff is something of a serial killer (complete with a ‘trophy room’) that excuses his own actions under the guise of sportsmanlike hunting. This all simmers into a really fun, suspense-ridden second half that sees Bob and Zaroff attempting to outwit each other amidst the jungly backdrop. Yes, it’s all very convenient that the apologetic game hunter ends up being hunted himself, but the irony really seems to exist mainly as reinforcement for the movie’s commentary. Interestingly, Zaroff is the only voice in the film that overwhelmingly supports Bob’s hunting advocacy. He also serves as Bob’s intellectual superior.

In its original form, the film was apparently about 15 minutes longer (I really wish the extra footage of Zaroff’s ‘trophy room’ could’ve been saved). That may be a reason why some scenes seem amusingly abrupt, especially in the beginning. There’s plenty of foreshadowing dialogue to snicker at too, though Zaroff’s ‘most dangerous game’ speech is remarkably well delivered. Leslie Banks (Zaroff) gave a wonderfully theatrical performance that was unfortunately swept under the rug following code-driven suppression of the film. I could’ve done without Robert Armstrong’s hammy drunk performance though. His demise almost turned Zaroff into a personal anti-hero.

On the cusp of King Kong, Ernest B. Shoedsack was at the helm. The two films were apparently filmed simultaneously, and King Kong uses a host of the same jungle sets. Not to mention that the films share two of the same stars (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong). The jungle sets provide a nice backdrop for the second half, and Zaroff’s estate sets a great foreboding tone early on. Some of the rough, glowing timeworn frames give many of the shots an almost dreamlike beauty as well, similar to the effect that Guy Maddin attempts to recreate in his stuff.

This movie’s reputation was irreparably damaged when the Hays code was set in, leading to it being withheld for a generation. Indeed, some of the props and implications are pretty rough. Apart from some inescapably cheesy affectations, it’s aged very well, and is definitely one of the better examples of early horror.