Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick our favourite Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM every month.
Because of its creepiness, its fabulous lush look and its tight and speedy structure, because of Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks, one of the best movie villains, I like The Most Dangerous Game (1932) more than its “companion” movie, King Kong, which was made almost simultaneously, by much of the same crew and actors, on many of the same sets. Ernest Schoedsack and Irving Pichel co-directed, Merian Cooper produced, Max Steiner did the music.
The opening credits set the tone and spell out clearly what manner of movie Game will be, with a hand using that gaudy door knocker, the sculpture of a barely clad woman in the clutches of some barbaric creature that’s ready to devour her (an image echoed later on a huge tapestry). The story begins as a yacht crew is having trouble trusting and navigating the guiding lights they see in “these waters.” They’re in a notoriously treacherous channel near a mysterious island and the lights don’t match the chart, but they decide to keep going. One of the passengers on this yacht is Joel McCrea, famous big game hunter and author of adventures and theories of the hunt, and he’s engaged in a debate about the merits and rewards of his sport. When quizzed about what it must feel like to be the hunted, McCrea chuckles and replies he’ll never have to find out, because that is the order of things. Right on cue the ship collides with a coral reef and sinks.
McCrea ends up the sole survivor after the sharks eat up anyone the yacht didn’t take down. He makes it to the island, collapses in a heap, wakes up to the sound of howling and makes his way toward far off lights, which belong to a grand and creepy castle. There’s that same knocker we saw during the opening credits, on a door which seems to open by itself. Actually McCrea probably wishes it did since the doorman is a dour, hirsute, scary looking Cossack played by Noble Johnson, the pioneering black actor and filmmaker, here in white-face. We also meet the elegant Russian exile Count Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks. Banks seems a hospitable host, and even brings out the fine coffee set and some guests from a previous shipwreck to prove it, namely Fay Wray and her alcoholic brother, played by Robert Armstrong. “If anyone has a right to his liquor it’s a victim of circumstance,” Armstrong slurs, and he’ll be a victim of some more circumstances before too long. It’s all fun and games until someone loses their brother, and when Wray almost convinces McCrea of her fear that Banks is a killer who hunts his guests, they go searching beyond the big iron door. They find Banks’ trophy room, at which point Charlton Heston might yell: The Most Dangerous Game is PEOPLE! People lured by ship by those misplaced lights. Banks invites his esteemed fellow hunt enthusiast McCrea to be his companion in this sport, but after McCrea’s horror and refusal, the furious and insulted Banks challenges McCrea to a game of “outdoor chess,” with a head start (useless on this tiny isle), Wray as the prize, plus freedom for the couple if McCrea wins. So begins the movie’s centerpiece, the frantic fight for survival in the jungle.
As Sean Connery in The Untouchables might say: if the Count brings a rifle, you use a crevasse; if they hide in the swamp, you release the hounds. And just when you think it can’t get worse– gators! The battle of wits during the hunt is great because Banks is too clever a villain to “fall” for the old crevasse or booby trapped log ploy, so McCrea keeps upping his game and gets more ruthless, finally making a dramatic getaway with a pretend demise, to return like a superhero when Banks is relaxed and enjoying his victory.
The trophy room scene was originally much longer, because it had Banks giving a guided and graphic tour of his kills, which included full stuffed humans, but audiences found it too scary so it was cut down to the reveal we get here, of just one pickled head in a jar and one mounted on a wall. The original would have been something to see; thanks for nothing, squeamish 1932 audiences!
Fay Wray’s character was not even in Richard Connell’s original story, but the addition of a female in the movie is a brilliant idea. Instead of a battle between hunters, Wray’s presence is a device that initially serves as exposition, helping to reveal to McCrea and the viewer the evil unfolding on that island. Obviously having a female gives the hero someone to protect, but the most important effect of her involvement on the tone of the movie is that by being the “prize,” the reward to be “enjoyed” after the hunt, Wray as the object of lust reveals Banks’ true nature. He’s not just a psycho but a perverted one who equates violence and murder with “love” and satisfaction. Shockingly suitable for the Pre-Code era and also paves the way for so many serial killers in modern plots. Wray’s famous scream isn’t overused, she lets it out a few times when carried around by Banks’ Cossack brutes, but once in the swamp where silence means survival, she resorts to vigorously clutching and wringing McCrea’s arm, opening her eyes wide and gasping or biting back a shriek. Later she uses screams like an alarm system, more than once alerting McCrea to some deadly danger behind him. It’s a nice touch that keeps her from being a flaky, hysterical horror movie female. Even the time she flees in panic it’s a device that leads to the discovery of the crevasse. I like how she tips her coffee toward McCrea after they first meet to have some excuse to use the word “danger” with great emphasis, wink, hint, nudge.
The best horror monsters for my taste are the ones you could easily imagine living next door, and Zaroff is one of the best of that type. He’s said to sleep all day and hunt all night, like a vampire, but he’s really one of Hannibal Lecter’s relatives: refined, cultured, multi-talented, highly intelligent, even friendly and fair toward the adversary he respects. This sophistication is what makes it so terribly juvenile and disturbing the couple times he repeats McCrea’s sentences back in a mocking tone, and it reveals early on how unstable he is. Banks’ lopsided face was the result of paralysis from a real WW1 injury. The camera focuses on the “nice” side when it’s the Count, and on the scarred, drooping side when it’s the villainous hunter of men, frozen in wide-eyed maniacal trance and stroking his scar.
McCrea is the perfect action hero: chivalrous, charming, handsome and hunky, 100% believable whether he’s swinging on vines or philosophizing about the positions of predator and prey. He’s not unflappable though; he gets concerned but is always positive and resourceful. He’s a bit slow and dense to pick up on Wray’s initial warnings, but it comes off more as a good-natured trust in his host, not stupidity. In the climatic, amazingly graphic fight he tosses Banks over a sofa and breaks the back of one of the Cossacks. For someone who never considered himself much of an actor, he nailed the qualities of a good man who has to fight dirty and be ruthless. He always impresses me and you couldn’t do better for this type of role.
The camera work is so well done with many shots worth special mention. The first flashy and great one happens when the drunken Armstrong tells Wray “don’t worry, the Count will take care of me, all right!” and the camera zooms from her horrified point of view high up on the stairs, down to focus tight on Banks’ sinister smirk. Then in the trophy room as Banks and McCrea discuss hunting, the camera gets ever tighter on their faces, each time with more extreme lighting and more sweat. As Wray, McCrea and Banks run through the jungle, the camera either follows with dolly shots as if in pursuit, or fixes on and moves with them to show their movement. Sometimes it’s just the camera parting the leaves or placed in Banks’ POV going after Wray and McCrea. It’s tight closeups on little spaces where the pair are hiding, or wide, artistic images showing the actors as shadowy figures against a dense, fully lit swamp fog.
In every way this is a great movie, one of the earliest and best action thrillers, full of attractive and creepy things packed into a short run time, thanks to economy of effects, image and storytelling. Watch The Most Dangerous Game on TCM Nov. 5.
now go see what Karen chose for you to watch this month.