‘The Most Dangerous Game’ or — ‘First Blood’ on Skull Island?
I’d heard of ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (1932) and even though I’d never seen the film I knew what the answer would be if the title was a question; but let’s play coy and not spoil it for those who don’t know. Yet I’d always assumed the film would be a somewhat mature, cerebral affair with a little bit of action at the end. How wrong I was because ‘TMDG’ is delightfully, and spectacularly, unhinged in all the best possible ways.
It starts with a yacht meeting some rocks with an impeccable knack for ironic timing. The yacht is smashed to pieces and Joel McCrea finds himself washed up on a South American island. It seems deserted apart from a spooky looking mansion with horrifying knockers and is the home of the Cossack Count Zaroff who resides here along with his pack of savage hounds and strange looking servants. But you can’t be picky about your accommodation when stranded on a spooky, storm-bashed island so let’s go in.
Once inside it’s like stepping into James Whale’s ‘The Old, Dark House’ (1932) as disparate strangers seeking refuge meet in a foreboding building containing bizarre hosts, silent, bearded, ominous servants and crackling with gloriously crazy pre-code dialogue. Count Zaroff himself is responsible for most of the insanity and crazy dialogue. He’s an expert hunter, you see, who has just invented a “new sensation” and it involves hunting “the most dangerous game”, an act which enhances the process of making love. We all need a hobby, I guess, so let’s not judge Zaroff for now.
However, Joel McCrea is himself also an expert hunter so once Zaroff reveals and initiates his dastardly version of “outdoor chess” it becomes a battle of wits as much as physical prowess. The prey is given a head start, an insulting gesture on such a small island, and if they can survive before dawn then freedom will be theirs. If not, there’s always a nice warm spot on Count Zaroff’s trophy room wall.
I had no idea ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ was an RKO film by Schoedsack and Cooper with a soundtrack by Max Steiner and staring Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong because if I had I’d have tracked this beast down years ago. The entire film has that wonderful RKO feel and vibe and bristles with violence and naughtiness but it’s when the chase begins, when McCrea and Wray venture out onto the island that the link between this and ‘Kong’ become undeniable.
Zaroff’s island is a close, almost identical, sibling to Kong’s island with both places heaving with arboreal excess and the feel of a dream. There’s even a fallen tree over a chasm, strange birds in flight and a mist-wreathed swamp and all dripping with that gorgeously atmospheric RKO touch. I almost squealed with delight when it hit me what was going on.
The other delightful thing about ‘TMDG’ is how breathlessly fast-paced it all is. There’s no fucking about and the climactic chase is fantastic. It’s also quite long as even though it lasts 25 minutes or so the film itself only lasts an hour meaning the hunt comprises the last half of the movie. The film is so densely packed it’s like holding a jack-in-the-box desperate to spring open.
‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is absolutely amazing and a massive surprise as rather than a somewhat po-faced, serious reflection on morality or whatever instead I got a deliriously bonkers version of ‘First Blood’ (1982) on Skull Island and with photographic effects that must have influenced Mario Bava. In short, I couldn’t have loved it any more.
Oh, but be warned — this is pre-code and boy, can you tell as this is an extremely violent picture. Just make sure you keep your head.