*. The story, by Richard Connell, is considered one of the most widely anthologized of all time. It’s an archetypal story — the hunter become the hunted when he meets a hunter of men — that Connell gives its neatest and most rapid expression.
*. When it came to Hollywood it had to be Hollywoodized. What this mainly meant was the addition of a love interest. In fiction we are comfortable being on our own, inside the head of a single protagonist. On screen we want company, or at least some eye candy. So enter the lady Eve (Fay Wray) and her dipso brother (Robert Armstrong).
*. It’s worth flagging these basic differences between the film and its source. In the story, Rainsford falls off the yacht when he drops his pipe. Zaroff does use a trick to wreck ships, but that’s not how he gets Rainsford, who comes to him as windfall. In the story there is no Eve and her brother, and so the whole business of Zaroff’s prehistoric, predatory sexuality is invented. “One passion builds on another — first kill, then love,” Zaroff tells us. For “only after the kill does man know the full ecstasy of love.” Is this Zaroff, or Dracula?
*. Overall, the film is a much, much creepier bit of work than the story, which is an inversion of the usual relationship between page and screen. So Zaroff isn’t just émigré Russian nobility (he escaped the Revolution by investing in American securities), afflicted with ennui and indulging a taste for Pol Roger and Chambertin while humming pieces from Madame Butterfly. Now he is a despotic pervert, with a suggestive habit of rubbing the scar on his forehead. What does he want to do with Eve anyway? Surely it’s no coincidence he looks like the satyr in the wall-hanging carrying off the young lady, a figure also represented in the door knocker (the door knocker in the story is a “leering gargoyle,” and there is no tapestry mentioned at all).
*. That scar isn’t in the story either, but it adds to the eccentric character of Leslie Banks’s Zaroff. Banks had been injured in the First World War and the left side of his face had been partially paralyzed. He made the most of it. Pauline Kael enjoyed “his twisted schizoid face — one half suave Englishman, the other half twisted and with suggestions of exotic evil.”
*. The script gave him every opportunity to ham the part up, with all kinds of double entendres and ironic drippings (“The count will take care of me all right!” “Indeed I shall.”). The direction does nothing to play this down, lighting him to look like a fanatical imp and even in one incredible shot zooming down the staircase into his face.
*. All of this does more, much more, than simply suggest exotic evil. That wall hanging is tame by comparison with the horrors of the trophy room. A head mounted on the wall, and then one floating in a tank! This is incredible. Indeed, a trophy room of heads would still have the power to shock in Sin City, 70 years later. And yet the trophy room scene was originally even more graphic and disturbing and was only cut when audiences couldn’t take it. Also note how a group of heads (plural) mounted on a wall are featured in the theatrical release poster!
*. It was a remarkable time, at a remarkable studio. Some scenes shot for King Kong had to be cut for their shocking nature as well. And The Most Dangerous Game was the B-side of King Kong, shot at night using the same sets, cast and crew, much as the Spanish version of Dracula was shot — these guys knew how to economize!
*. Even given how over-the-top a production it is, I still could have lived without Robert Armstrong’s character. I also didn’t see how he would have been much of a challenge for Zaroff. The count explains that he sobered up, but I don’t see where he had much time for that, and even if sober he wouldn’t have been the most difficult game. Zaroff mentions giving his other prey a training regime of good food and exercise to get them in shape, and I don’t know why he didn’t offer Armstrong the same. Unless he just couldn’t stand him any longer, or didn’t want him draining his wine cellar.
*. The leads, however, do well enough. Joel McCrae is just a stud, but he’s likeable. I really enjoyed Fay Wray this time out, and I think she provides more than what Kael calls her “usual charming terrified heroine” routine. She has a knowing look that works well with this material.
*. Banks also seems to be enjoying himself even beyond what might have been called for. Were those lines where he mockingly mimics Rainsford in the script, or were they improvised? Or when he offers Armstrong a cigarette after he’s already taken one? These all seem like happy accidents.
*. The result is a fast-paced film that’s filled with loveable nuttiness, and one which truly belies its age. Connell’s story would go on to be adapted many, many times over the years, and yet despite being constantly updated and reinterpreted I don’t think it’s ever been as fresh as it has stayed here.