❉ Dan Roberts on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release of the 1932 RKO adaption of Richard Connell’s legendary tale.
Like one of Count Zaroff’s preferred quarry I appear to have been hunted this year by Richard Connell’s story of 1924. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on the subject of this legendary tale, detailing the two subsequent remakes and how it had influenced a catalogue of other films. I even went as far as noting the recent remake and the newly-released Eureka Blu-ray.
It was a bit of a surprise, although now I see inevitable, that the aforementioned Blu-ray appeared in my post box begging to be reviewed. So forgive me for what may seem like a lazy repeat of the earlier article, I’ll do my best to make it at least a little more different than the first remake, Game of Death (1945), turned out.
Richard Connell’s short story has been around since 1924 and has been called “the most popular short story in English”. The first film adaption was made in 1932 by RKO and also tagged with an alternative title, The Hounds of Zaroff. The premise is pretty straightforward; the hunter becomes the hunted. The hunter in this case is Robert Rainsford (the athletic Joel McCrea). A big game hunter and all round explorer. He along with his colleagues are on board a ship traversing treacherous waters and the captain is seemingly nervous about the positioning of the two buoys marking the alleged safe passage. In the dining room the conversation moves onto the ethics of hunting and Rainsford neatly sums it all up with “there are two type of people in the world. The hunters and the hunted.” He dooms himself further by stating that his position as a hunter will never be reversed. His flippant attitude to a fairly serious discussion doesn’t leave him in a positive light.
Almost immediately the ship smashes onto the reef of irony leaving Rainsford as the only survivor. He swims towards the only shoreline he can see and finds himself as the guest of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), an escapee from the Russian revolution who has an addiction to hunting. Zaroff is also entertaining another pair of ship wrecked guests in the shape of Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her brother Martin (Robert Armstrong).
Now more seasoned film enthusiasts may well have put together some clues: RKO + Fay Wray + Robert Armstrong . Yes. King Kong (1933). This film was in fact made at the same time, but filmed in the evening. This is also why some of the process shots of the forest and island bear strong resemblances to the ones in King Kong. Most of the crew are exactly the same too including the directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel and music by Max Steiner. In addition Noble Johnson also appears in both films. As a tribal leader in Kong, and here as Zaroff’s mute servant Ivan. One hopes they got paid overtime.
Eventually the conversation turns to hunting and the inevitable hunter being hunted. Zaroff hints at what his new exciting game is but can’t quite say the words, preferring to sensitively touch his scarred forehead, a trophy from a near death experience while hunting. A visit to his special trophy room which is full of pre-code heads is quite a sight made clearer in this restored print. Allegedly a lot of this scene was cut as it was deemed too horrific. I won’t dwell on the plot as it will just feel like covering ground already very well stalked and if you’ve never seen it before then better you come to it fresh.
However it is worth noting Leslie’s Banks’s fabulously theatrical performance which on this new release is made all the better by the superior audio track. While my original DVD version has an acceptable audio and vision signal, Eureka’s release is all the more crisper. Zaroff’s accent is far more clipped and allows some of the audio subtleties to come to the fore which weren’t apparent previously. You do actually get a version of the film with the old audio track and it’s quite different. The all-important spinal crack when Rainsford wrestles with one of Zaroff’s lackies resonates a shiver down the proverbial.
Some may describe the film as ripe and Zaroff is riper than most villains but his character simply wouldn’t work as a down to earth straight villain. Banks fills every single moment on screen with the sort of performance that isn’t too dissimilar to those of Tod Slaughter. He lays bare the link between sexual potency and hunting to the point that when it dawned on him that hunting had become boring, his desire for love (i.e. sex) also dwindled leaving him emasculated and impotent. This point is made even more obvious when Zaroff declares you can never know true passion until after the kill. It is clear from Banks’s performance with the murder of Eve’s brother Martin, for him the kill is an orgasmic rapture even concluding by lighting a cigarette! It is exactly this kind of blatant sexual inference that the soon to be imposed “Hays Code” would outlaw.
Adding to the role is something quite personal to Leslie Banks. During World War I he suffered a facial paralysis and some scaring due to a shrapnel injury. Here he uses the deformity to good effect underlining the split personality of genial host and psychotic maniac.
Zaroff’s desire for Eve is a hunt in itself. While she may not represent fair game as a quarry in the field she is a trophy nevertheless. As a precursor to the final chase, Zaroff and Rainsford make a deal that whoever wins, takes Eve. In the case of Rainsford, he takes her off the island to freedom. In Zaroff’s case, he will take her sexually, regardless of her amenability.
As if to underline Zaroff’s insanity there is a wonderful moment of 1930s cinematography when the camera glides down the staircase from Fay Wray into a close up of Leslie Banks wearing a deranged expression only he could get away with. It has all the style of the Busby Berkley musical.
Aside from the novelty of a pre-code film is it relevant today? Well much has been already said about the influence the story has had over the last near-century. Given the news coverage and ethical discussion about trophy hunting, field sports and the proliferation of the term “toxic masculinity” I think the story and indeed the film has served as a blueprint and a touchstone for anyone interested in these subjects. You cannot fail to link it, even unknowingly, to this story.
The disc package has been nicely designed with a map of the island on the box and an essay by Craig Ian Mann. Sadly this wasn’t in my preview pack but I’ll be seeking it out for sure. As I found when I was writing the piece about the sequels and its legacy each film has a depth which digs deep into the core of humanity.
The rest of the extras consist of audio commentaries from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman along with interviews with Stephen Thrower and Kim Newman. I did find the two interviews very well informed and provided a wealth of detail regarding the history and legacy of the original story.
I would dare to add that Kim Newman’s interview did cover off a lot of the points I made in my earlier article, but neglected to mention The Naked Prey (1965) in his list of influenced films. I’m not saying I’m better than Kim Newman, but I’m making myself a badge. Actually in balance, Kim mentioned a book of stories Alfred Hitchcock wanted to do for his “Presents” series but never managed to. As I watched this my eyes flicked towards my bookshelf and there was the very same weathered paperback. It seems I had Richard Connell’s story in my possession all along but forgot about it!
Perhaps I’m not better than Kim after all.
The film is a blisteringly quick 65 minutes long but is no quota-quickie by any means. There isn’t an ounce of fat and no line is thrown away. Films like this really aren’t made anymore, and it’s a breath of fresh air, even after 90 years.
❉ Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase (First print-run of 2000 copies only)
❉ 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K restored scan
❉ Optional English SDH
❉ Brand new audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman
❉ Brand new interview with author / critic Kim Newman on the “hunted human” sub-genre
❉ Brand new interview with film scholar Stephen Thrower
❉ A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Craig Ian Mann, illustrated with archival imagery
❉ ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (Blu-ray) was released on 24 October 2022 by Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema Series, RRP £18.99.
❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot