A sort of b-side to the subsequent year’s King Kong (the 1933 original), shot on the same sets with some of the same actors around the same time, The Most Dangerous Game isn’t only a study in film-production ingenuity. It’s also a rousing adventure picture and a fine example of a literary adaptation that opens up into a fresh cinematic world.
Richard Connell’s perpetually popular short story offers up an irresistible piece of source material, and directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper make good on the potential, delivering an exciting piece of pre-code entertainment that clocks in at just over an hour.
Neatly divided into two sections, the film first introduces us to Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a famous and accomplished big game hunter whose luxury vessel crashes in the middle of nowhere. After swimming to safety to a nearby island, he discovers it’s inhabited by an eccentric Russian count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a deliciously scenery-chewing turn). Rainsford also finds that his ship isn’t the only recent crash — among the others marooned are the elegant Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her obnoxious alcoholic brother Martin (Robert Armstrong).
Zaroff posits himself as a big game hunter like Rainsford, but a few disappearing sailors later, and it begins to become clear that Zaroff hasn’t been completely honest. Bored with the too-easy-to-kill prey of various exotic animals, the count has turned to hunting humans, and he’s got a grotesque trophy room to prove it.
While the first half of the film is occupied by occasionally stilted exposition and some overt philosophizing on what it means to be a hunter, the second half is pure adventure as Rainsford and Eve are plunged into the jungle surrounding Zaroff’s estate with the hunter closing in behind. The impressive King Kong sets, several stunning matte paintings and lean, focused direction make for a wholly engrossing half-hour.
Flicker Alley’s superb package also includes Gow the Headhunter, a fascinating anthropological study/exploitation piece that received a number of re-releases over the decades. Both Schoedsack and Cooper worked as cinematographers on the production and Gow’s visual influence can certainly be seen on their later work.