The Mubi Cinematheque: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
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It is sometimes easy to forget how important competent acting is to the quality of a film. Performers like Daniel Day-Lewis and Kate Winslet make it look easy. They transform, not just physically but also emotionally. Even someone like Julia Roberts, who is often derided by many a film buff, can shine on occasion.
The performances from the entire cast of The Most Dangerous Game completely sink it. A thrilling concept can only take a narrative so far. The cadence is off. The villain is absurdly over the top, far past theatricality into something beyond human. Justify that, if you like, by citing his madness and social isolation having molded him. But that doesn’t really float. Neither do the rest of the performances.
The captain of the sinking ship in the early moments of the film has a horrible line reading when nabbed by a shark. “Agh, it’s got me!” He follows this up by throwing his arms up to the sky before bobbing into the depths of the ocean. It’s more like backyard games played by adolescents. It seems only a matter of time before someone points his fingers like a gun while shouting “bang!”
It’s a shame, too, because this is a fantastic concept. An affluent crazy person, bored of hunting conventional game, tricks travelers into becoming part of his chase. One such person is Bob Rainsford, a celebrated hunter of his own, who stumbles in as the sole survivor of the opening wreck. At first, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) tries to bond with him over their mutual interest thinking he can enlist him. Noble Rainsford (Joel McCrea) refuses and becomes part of the hunted. He works out a deal that if he can survive the hunt, he will win freedom for himself and Eve (Fay Wray).
Great concept. But much like how the film version of The Running Man runs afoul a fascinating story, The Most Dangerous Game is hampered so much by poor performances, sloppy editing, and clumsy camerawork. That it’s only 63 minutes long is not even a strength. The brevity hurts it far more than it helps. In a way, it may indicate a crispness but there is no time for anything to linger or set in. There is no real development of character beyond spoken exposition explaining everything to the audience. It’s more frustrating when the potential for greatness is so high. It is considered a milestone of the early days of talkies, but aside from having stunning sets and moments of tension it is more of an unfortunate misfire.
In fact, it’s ripe for a remake (ignoring, for a moment, Surviving the Game with Ice-T and Rutger Hauer). With so many other movies of the era getting modern updates, in many cases needlessly, The Most Dangerous Game could benefit from the hands of a David Fincher (who referenced the original in Zodiac) or a Christopher Nolan. It could even be a nice non-militaristic project for Kathryn Bigelow. Hire a strong screenwriter and make sure the Fay Wray character is actually something more than a damsel in distress and this could be a wonderful project.
The Most Dangerous Game is a time capsule movie, and not a particularly good one. It’s not a good excuse to blame its release date for its cumbersome execution. There are plenty of its contemporary films (like the next year’s King Kong, co-directed by Ernest Schoedsack who served as co-director here as well) that were more expertly crafted and performed. There is so much potential to be mined with a story like this, that it’s a big disappointment that it doesn’t come close to reaching it.