14 March 2007

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directed by: Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman

Grade: C

Boy, Criterion’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one, eh? The Most Dangerous Game might be fun to catch on television in the wee small hours of the morning, and it may be a head above its now forgotten B-movie contemporaries, but any case for it as a cinematic touchstone—and isn't that what we expect movies released by Criterion to be?—would be, uh, spurious, at best.

Rainsford, played by a young Joel McCrea, is a famous big game hunter and a writer of adventure-memoirs who finds himself stranded on a mysterious island after being the sole survivor of a suspicious shipwreck. Thought to be uninhabited, the island is in fact home to Count Zarloff, a Cossack who successfully fled the Revolution with his fortune in tact, and his macabre retinue. Zarloff, too, it turns out, is a passionate hunter, but he has an appetite for the biggest, most dangerous game of them all—Joel McCrea.

It’s a potent, oft-worked premise, but the filmmakers don't really take it anywhere. Is The Most Dangerous Game an animal rights polemic that deglamorizes sport-hunting by turning the tables? Or is it a subversive socialist allegory for the barbarity of the ruling class? At only a little more than sixty minutes, it’s over too quickly to find out. The film does have its moments—a gruesome collection of “trophies”, some creepy close-ups and a ravishing final shot—but doesn't nearly every movie have something nice to be said of it when one tries hard enough? (And Lord, Criterion, I'm trying!)

The Most Dangerous Game's historical significance is that it was made at the same time, and by the same people, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoesdsack, who brought us King Kong, using many of the same sets, crew and actors—including Fay Wray. But in relation to its sister film, The Most Dangerous Game is like a turkey soup made from the remnants of a Thanksgiving dinner. As Wray runs for her life through the jungle from Zarloff the mad hunter, I found myself wondering: where’s Kong when you need him?

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