Clocking it at a spry 62 minutes on Amazon Prime, The Most Dangerous Game is a rather splendid blast from the past, a vigorous thriller that belies its age and offers a solid mix of humour, thrills and even politics. Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s film is often mentioned in the light of King Kong and early horror, but it stands on its own as an example of good storytelling; the opening shot, or a beast holding a relining woman in its arms, is ingeniously revealed to be a ornate door-knocker, a delicious visual joke that sets the right tone.
Things start slow with a lengthy introduction to Bob (Joel McCrea) and adventurer who finds himself on-board a luxury yacht which seems to be unexpectedly off-course somewhere in the waters of South America. After a long series of getting-to-know-you expeditionary chats, a few short seconds see the boat smashed onto rocks and Bob gets washed up at the castle of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks).
As often in 1930’s film, we get straight into dinner-party and cocktails mode, but Bob notices something awry with the Count’s other guest, Eve (Fay Wray), who says the other members of her party have gone missing. Before Bob can sort things out, the Count announces that he’s planning a deadly game of hide and seek, with Bob and Eve as the prey. Fortunately, Bob is made of sterner stuff, and is a good match for the Count, his henchmen, his dogs and his manservant
Zaroff’s game of ‘outdoor chess’ is a novel one, and feeds into everything from Hostel to The Hunger Games. His philosophy is explored in detail, and his lack of humanity is evident from the outset. This is pre-Code Hollywood, and it’s quite shocking to see how tough Bob is, dispatching Zaroff’s dogs with casual ease. And it’s fun to see the leading players of King Kong (Wray, Robert Armstrong) and some very familiar sets used to evoke Zaroff’s island; while it doesn’t have the same majesty, The Most Dangerous Game is clearly cut from the same cloth.
The Most Dangerous Game is better known by reputation rather than exposure; this variable print on Prime strobes badly at times, and scenes by candlelight took like they were shot in a techno-nightclub. But it’s probably as good as the film can look outside of blu-ray; film historians and thrill-seekers would do well to get a shot of this dangerous, exciting game.