Directed by: Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Premise: The survivor of a shipwreck (Joel McCrea) washes up on an island inhabited by a hunter who stalks other human beings for sport.
What Works: The Most Dangerous Game is a brisk action film from the early 1930s and it is a smart adventure that manages to be very entertaining. Contemporary audiences sometimes struggle with pictures from the early days of Hollywood because they are shot and edited in a very routine style. But The Most Dangerous Game has a few sequences that are visually striking, such as the sinking of the ship and the chase through the swamp, and these scenes hold up quite well. The film is helped along by a stirring score by Max Steiner, especially in the climax where the bulk of Steiner’s work appears. Because of its cinematic flourishes and effective music, The Most Dangerous Game moves along very quickly. The picture is only sixty-three minutes long but the film does not feel truncated or rushed. It is just the right length to tell its story and a lot of contemporary filmmakers could learn something from this film’s economic storytelling. A contemporary version of this film would probably labor on and on but this film gets right to the point, and its streamlined form is befitting the themes of the picture. Something else The Most Dangerous Game does well is to include some smart dialogue. The second act of the story, leading up to the big chase at the end, has a number of a soliloquies by Count Zaroff, played terrifically by Leslie Banks, in which the character proclaims his survivalist ethics. These brief moments add some intellectual and thematic gravity to The Most Dangerous Game and there is actually something to think about in this film while the hero is being chased through the jungle. Aside from its own narrative and cinematic accomplishments, The Most Dangerous Game is also interesting to watch because it is so influential. This picture was considered shocking at the time of its release and many later films such as Apocalypse Now, Predator, Surviving the Game, Hard Target, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Hunger Games owe quite a bit this film in their themes and set pieces.
What Doesn’t: The Most Dangerous Game is very much a film of the early 1930s and it has to be appreciated as such. The film is told on a modest scale and it does not have the epic set pieces of later films. Truthfully, some of its action scenes are modest even for the time in which it was made. The film is consistent with a lot of the adventure films of the period, and like a lot of those pictures the protagonist is a bland white man, played by Joel McCrea. He is an uninteresting character who it is difficult to cheer for and the love interest (Fay Wray) is included more as a matter of Hollywood convention than for any narrative reason. Also consistent with the time is the film’s racial and ethnic stereotypes. Although The Most Dangerous Game was considered novel and edgy in 1932, a contemporary audience might be more shocked by cultural insensitivity than the idea of human beings treating each other like wild game.
DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes a commentary track.
Bottom Line: The Most Dangerous Game is an important film both as a cinematic artifact and for its influence on later movies. It is also a fun adventure film and some of its sequences remain very effective.
Episode: #382 (April 1, 2012)