johnlink ranks THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)

Not quite ready for bed last night, I happened across a print of this film online. This is a movie which Criterion found worthy of a release, so I figured a short 65 minute jaunt through the jungle couldn’t be all bad. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, and concerns a man living on a remote island who hunts shipwreck survivors for sport.

I watched THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) on 11.26.11. It was my first viewing of the film. Entire movie can be seen here.

What a strange and wonderful little movie this is! THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is both hampered by the fact that sound film was unsophisticated in ’32, and aided by a willingness to pave its own ground. There are shots which frustrate, moments which are pure camp, and studio shots which feel disjointed from the reality the film attempts to establish. Yet, on the other hand, there is some spectacular fight choreography, impassioned performances, and tonally wonderful dialogue.

The picture above comes as a perfect example of how this film straddles the line of flawed and grand. Fay Wray is walking up the stairs, realizing that the pictured villain (Leslie Banks) is about to do something terrible to her brother. The music crescendos  and the camera ‘zooms’ hauntingly to the above close up of Banks’ face. It is a terrible cliche, but the age of this film makes it feel  pure, not silly. Yet this doesn’t have time to sit. The film immediately cuts to a two shot of Banks and hero Joel McCrea having a normal civil conversation. The edit probably cut four seconds of real time, but it lead to a jarringly disjointed experience. The result doesn’t make Banks seem more dangerous for his ability to switch on-an-off the villainy, but instead leads to a feeling like the editor didn’t know how to handle this situation. A silent film would have been able to drop a title card between the two moments, giving that brief contemplative reprieve the audience needed. This fledgling era of sound film was unprepared to handle the moment.

The performances are wonderful. Banks makes a terrifying villain, and he gets it right by not playing a ‘madman’ but by playing a bored rich guy who has lost the line between right and wrong. McCrea plays a solid lead, holding the attention of the audience and feeling like a real masculine presence on screen. Fay Wray does more than just scream, coming off as the most cunning and intelligent one in the room oftentimes, and certainly being much more capable of handling herself than her feminized drunkard of a brother, played with gusto by Robert Armstrong. The film, strangely, also features a black man in whiteface, with Noble Johnson playing the brutal mute Ivan. There is also one purely campy moment of brutal acting. Right after the shipwreck three survivors are floating around as sharks begin to circle. One man goes down. Then another, floating right next to our hero, looks down in terror before shouting ‘He got me’ like his kid just found him playing hide-and-seek. Then he drops below the water, dead. Terribly performed. Perfect camp.

The dialogue is sharp. At a crisp 63 minutes, we don’t get too much time to establish our hero and the situation. A several minute introductory scene on a boat (with many people who are about to die) works because it introduces the themes of the film without being clunky. The extended parlor scene, as the truth plays out, is tense and impactful. The jungle chase is primitive, no doubt, by today’s standards and is surprisingly exposition heavy (with Fay Wray assuming the knowledge-less female to whom McCrea must explain everything he is about to do).

Made in 1932, this film was shot when the Hays Code was technically in place, though it would not be until 1934 that it was truly enforced. As a result, this is a film which feels dangerous. Or, put another way, I can’t remember seeing a black-and-white film which has a hero put a henchman into a submission hold and literally break the guy’s back on-screen. Surprising moment, which made me immediately appreciate how much the Hays Code effected cinema for the next couple of decades. Interestingly, the trophy room scene (in which Banks shows off his collection of human trophies) was cut way down because audiences couldn’t handle the images of stuffed men and decapitated heads in jars. I’m not a violence junky, but it would be interesting to see how these images were portrayed in a 1932 film. What is there instead, a man’s head hung on a wall like a deer, is certainly suitable for what the film needs to show us, however.

Interestingly, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is a sort of little brother of KING KONG. Both shot at the same time for RKO. Both star Fay Wray. Both used many of the same sets. The jungle here is much of the same you’ll see in KING KONG.

Really glad I discovered this little film. It makes me curious to find some other pre-Hays talkie films, to see what sort of work was being done. This definitely gets a recommend from me, despite its several flaws.



The bonus is for the fight choreography, which really caught me off guard with its sophistication. McCrea incorporates an amateur wrestling style which doesn’t really get much play in action sequences of yesteryear or today.



~ by johnlink00 on November 27, 2011.

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