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Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce Que C'est?

By Drew Morton | Film | July 13, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Film | July 13, 2009 |

Richard Connell’s short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” has always held a special place in my heart. Having read the story in one of my high school English classes, I was determined to adapt it into a screenplay about a crazed Scottish hunter who breaks a man out of prison, only to hunt him down for sport. While writing the screenplay, I came to realization that even with madness serving as a motivation, this recreational sport can be hard to characterize as it either bleeds into serial killer territory or becomes the Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde) character from Jumanji (1995). Needless to say, I gave up screenwriting and threw The Fox Hunt (Second Draft, 2002) in a filing cabinet somewhere. Watching Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 adaptation only crystallized my rationale behind my abandonment of the project.

The Most Dangerous Game follows the basic plot of the short story, embellishing at times, its simple premise. Famous big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) becomes shipwrecked on a small island, only to be taken in by the Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), also a hunter. As Rainsford stays in Zaroff’s estate, he makes the acquaintance of Eve (Fay Wray) and her brother Martin (Robert Armstrong) and, following the disappearance of Martin, discovers that the Count hunts his shipwrecked guests for sport. Who is the latest slot in the trophy room reserved for? Bob. Zaroff discloses his intent and, relishing the challenge of hunting another hunter, gives Bob and Eve a knife and twelve hours to strategize on the island before he begins pursuit. If they stay alive until the following dawn, Zaroff will let them free. If Bob is killed, Zaroff will take Eve as his bride.

The problems with the film begin with the performances, particularly those of McCrea and Banks. First off, McCrea is unable to harness his emotional range appropriately. Upon the death of his friends, McCrea plays Bob as lethargic, making it unintentionally hysterical when Banks’s Zaroff asks him to keep his emotions in check. In fact, McCrea seems to get more emotional at the death of a complete stranger than he does after witnessing a shark take the lives of his friends. Banks’s Zaroff is completely over the top and he is unable to harness a Russian accent, commonly driving his vocal chords over the cliff of the Scottish highlands. One feels as if they’re watching Darrell Hammond playing Sean Connery playing Boris the Blade in Guy Richie’s Snatch (2000). As you might have surmised, it is not a pretty sight.

Yet, I’m not sure if this error in performance can be completely attributed to McCrea and Banks. As his work with Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story) attests, McCrea is a competent actor when placed in the hands of a competent director. While I’m less familiar with Leslie Banks’s other roles, I think it’s safe to suggest that his poor performance primarily arises from the script and direction with his abilities only playing a secondary cause. Let’s face it, the film is not terribly graceful or subtle in setting up the revelation of Zaroff’s true intent. There’s a crazed, bearded Cossack named Ivan who stares menacingly at the guests, a mural on the wall showing a demonic centaur killing a man. Even Bob Rainsford pontificates at one point “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.” The horror of the situation would be best milked in a slow reveal of Zaroff’s psychotic temperament, which I feel like directors Pichel and Schoedsack were attempting, albeit poorly.

Acting aside, another disappointing characteristic of the film are the special effects. I should note that aside from the shipwrecking scene and some shots during the finale, special effects play a rather small role in the film. What I find disappointing about them is that only a few months later, half of the creative team (director Schoedsack, producers David O’Selznick and Merian C. Cooper, and actors Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong) behind The Most Dangerous Game would produce King Kong (1933). Sure, Kong is not a perfect film with regard to pacing and some other character and structural deficiencies, but it was revolutionary with regard to pre-CGI special effects. None of that creativity or ingenuity is present in Dangerous Game. During the ship wreck, Pichel and Schoedsack cut to a miniature of a boat sinking to a close up the actors floating on rubbish to a stock-footage shot of a shark to an actor pretending to be eaten. There is nothing physical in the space of the shots that links them together. We are not shown any characters on the miniature boat and we do not see a limb above frame in the shot of the shark attacking. Special effects, digital or analog, only tend to work when there is something haptic or physical present in the space they are presenting. Yet, even if The Most Dangerous Game had benefited from special effects, it still would not be worthy of a slot in this critic’s trophy room.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.

Trailer for ABC's "Defying Gravity" | Maine International Film Festival 2009