Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
In the early 1930s, legendary producer David O. Selznick took audiences to a jungle island to give them one of the most thrilling cinematic adventures ever brought to a screen. Most know this feat of filmmaking as King Kong – a movie that continues to horrify and excite audiences. However, most don’t realize that the release of King Kong was the second time in as many years that Selznick pulled off the feat. With the enormity that the big ape brought to the screen, somehow the genius of The Most Dangerous Game got subdued, reaching an iconic place in history, but not quite reaching the top of The Empire State Building of public consciousness. This might even be an unfair statement for the other dozen films that the man produced from 1932-1933, but King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game share a common heritage, a common cast, and common sets. It seems only fitting that they should share a common legacy.
Fay Wray’s Eve Trowbridge and Joel McCrea’s Bob Rainsford are part of a group who are shipwrecked on an island and taken in by the kindness of what seems to be the place’s only resident – Count Zaroff (played by Leslie Banks). In expected fashion, the odd behavior of the Count is soon explained when Even and Bob stumble into his trophy room – a place where he keeps the heads, skeletons and bodies of his human hunting trips. Eve and Bob are quickly thrown into the impossible situation of navigating an unknown island while running from a ruthless madman who purposefully shipwrecks sailors in order to hunt them down.
Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds. It’s desperate and intense. The mixed behavior of civility, hospitality and ruthlessness displayed by Count Zaroff is as enigmatic as the title – a meaning that becomes obvious in a quick, cold shower of reality. All of the thriller aspects of the film hold up more than seventy years later, the same way that King Kong still has the ability to make audiences leap out of their seats. Although, the body count isn’t nearly as high in The Most Dangerous Game.
What makes the film work so well is a perfect blend of strong cinematography, dynamic acting and a depth of mood created by the symphonic score. Regarding the first component, the camera work is a blend of sweeping sea shots, jungle shots that add a sense of claustrophobia to each scene during the hunt, and intimate close ups that most 1930s directors would have been used to. These close ups showcase the acting work and beauty of both Fay Wray and Joel McCrea. The two stars are an incredible pair, displaying a certain type of chemistry that isn’t typical in film. They had to strike a balance between romance and abject survivalism that makes the nightmarish scenario believable.
The musical score by Max Steiner builds consistently in intensity, showcasing the early talent of a man who would make his career on King Kong and go on to do musical work for The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dark Victory, and Gone with the Wind. This was just the third film he’s scored, coming from a strong background working on Broadway – another Hollywood transplant for the booming young art form of film.
This film is a perfect example of the nexus between artistic beauty and fear. It is as intense a thriller that you might find in any decade. Although it didn’t quite reach the fame of King Kong (and what has?) The Most Dangerous Game has a space in our cultural landscape as an experience that comes close to rivaling even the legendary, big ape.
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