Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Human Animals: "The Most Dangerous Game"

Like another film that will be covered here in the following days, The Most Dangerous Game is barely a full-length feature. At 63 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game allots very little time for anything other than action. While those with short attention spans will applaud this on principle, The Most Dangerous Game also has adherents all across the critical spectrum, so despite its brief nature, this is a film worth seeing. 

Defined by the film critic and novelist Kim Newman as "one of the great action-horror films" that has "provided a template for many 'rich sicko' melodramas," The Most Dangerous Game can be seen as the progenitor of the entire "torture porn" sub-genre of horror, even though it's far less gruesome than later imitators. Put simply,The Most Dangerous Game presents the perfect horror narrative for the screen, and despite the fact that this movie, which was filmed on the same jungle sets as King Kong (The Most Dangerous Game was filmed during the time when the special effects were being finalized for that 1933 great ape film), has had to live in the shadow of co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack's most famous film, it stands on its own as a vastly darker project underscored by tremendous acting and a wonderful script. 

 Much of the power in The Most Dangerous Game is ripped right from the short story that inspired it - Richard Connell's 1924 classic of the same name. In both Connell's story and the film (which stays incredibly true and even presents verbatim dialogue taken from Connell), the central question involves hunting - hunting as a sport and hunting as a greater metaphor for base and primitive humanity. As Sanger Rainsford, the international hunter who is portrayed in the film version by the ruggedly handsome actor Joel McCrea, says in the beginning: "The world is made up of two classes - the hunters and the huntees." While Rainsford's later predicament on General Zaroff's island more than likely changed his philosophy for the less sanguine, this bit of social Darwinism runs throughout the story and the film. In both, Zaroff (who is Count Zaroff in the film and portrayed brilliantly by Leslie Banks) echoes Rainsford's social binary, although he further extends it to its logical conclusion. 

"Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift?" 

This then is the summation of Zaroff's worldview - a worldview that is only mildly tempered in the film because McCrea portrays Rainsford (who is named Bob, not Sanger, a play on the Latin word for "blood") as a less violent, more All-American character. Nevertheless, considering the film's release date, Banks, who had suffered a wound in World War I that paralyzed the left side of his face, plays up the potential Fascism (or at least authoritarianism) of Zaroff to the hilt, what with his all-black attire and his vaguely Italianate facial hair.  

Besides the struggle between Zaroff and Rainsford, the film made the decision to also include other shipwrecked survivors on the island along with Rainsford. While the story speaks of other captives off-screen, the film produces two additional speaking roles. The first and least important is the role of the drunken fool Martin Trowbridge, which is played by Robert Armstrong. While Armstrong is best known for playing Carl Denham in King Kong (a character clearly based on Merian C. Cooper, the film's creative mastermind), his portrayal of the doomed Trowbridge provides not only the reassurance that Zaroff is indeed as insane as Rainsford thinks he is, but it also allows for the film's only flashes of humor. 

Fay Wray, another soon-to-be Kong alumnus, provides the beauty in the film with her character Eve Trowbridge. The inclusion of Eve undercuts the original story's hyper-masculine chess match in favor of a more common rumination on the battle between love and wickedness. McCrea and Wray certainly have on-screen chemistry, and besides the scenes shot within Zaroff's Gothic castle, the film's highest moments come when Rainsford and Eve try to survive both the island's misty swamps and the Count's baying and hungry hounds. 

Although action is such an important part of the film, The Most Dangerous Game is not without an intelligent core. Much like the Island of Lost Souls and King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game places a clear case of barbarity on an isolated island ruled by a single animalistic force. Zaroff and Doctor Moreau in particular showcase a "civilized" brand of authoritarian madness, for both are driven by deep-seated passions and conclusions based upon unrestrained selfishness. Both Moreau and Zaroff are men without morals, and more importantly, while the inhabitants of Skull Island are primarily defined by their backwardness and their fear of things more primitive, Moreau and Zaroff conceive of their own deification (they both "play God" in their respective narratives) based upon their supposed conquest of the natural world. Such ideologies are fairly common in the pre-code horror films of Hollywood, and in a certain way they give credence to the underlying assertion in Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler. While Kracauer believed that the innate German desire for a strongman's restoration is hidden throughout the great silent horror films made in Germany during the politically chaotic Weimar period, a similar idea can be discovered in pre-code films such as The Most Dangerous Game, which not only warns about the threat posed by uninhibited strongmen, but also relishes in the comforting thought that stronger men, usually men of some moral foundation, can overcome even the most pathological of tyrants. 

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