Curse of the Leisured Class

Pity poor Count Zaroff. As the man who has everything, including breeding, wealth, servants, beautiful clothes, valuable artworks, a pack of skilled hunting dogs, a chateau-like fortress, and his own isolated tropical isle on which to keep them, you think he’d be satisfied. But Zaroff suffers—does he ever!—from the plight of those with nothing to do and too much time to do it in. He’s bored. Especially with the one thing he’s devoted his life to: big-game hunting. He’s chased after every beast the planet has to offer, but now the thrill is gone; and, like Alexander, he has no more worlds to conquer. That is, until his discovery, as he explains with unsavory relish to his (rather unwilling) house guests, of “a new sensation” for the hunt. Which happens to be his fellow human beings. He’s even set up a secret trophy room to house his collection of prize heads: treasured booty from a macabre pastime.

In viewing Zaroff’s antics in RKO’s 1932 classic film The Most Dangerous Game, what stands out today is how much of a post-Great War/Depression-era/class allegory can be read into its bizarre goings-on. In Richard Connell’s famous short story, from which the film was adapted, and to which it hews closely in plot, Zaroff is a Russian military officer who combines blood sport with bourgeois tastes (humming a bit of Madama Butterfly while tracking his prey). The movie ups Zaroff’s status to the nobility, making him an aristocratic refugee from the Russian Revolution who still affects patrician hauteur. Entering the film clad, incongruously, in white tie and tails, he could also be a refugee from a Noel Coward play, or maybe P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle, ready for a brace of cocktails and some bracing repartee. Instead, Zaroff amuses himself with the finer details of his ghoulish hobby. Having set up a deliberately misguiding buoy system off his island’s shores, he waits for the shipwrecks and an opportunity to “stock,” as he puts it, his game supply, mainly with sailors and other lower-class riff-raff. When one current guest (Robert Armstrong) behaves in too drunkenly proletarian a fashion for the Count’s refined sensibilities, the unfortunate fellow also becomes fair game—in more ways than one.

As embodied in Leslie Banks’ amazing performance, Zaroff is an effete savage. Banks alternates his character between exhausted ennui, bug-eyed mania, and sadistic teasing of his guests as to guess what his “new animal” is: “You found one?” asks a visitor; “Yea-ya-sss,” Banks replies, dragging the word out to several syllables’ length and trailing it off in a hiss. But he also endows the Count with a touch of effeminate hysteria; in moments of intense excitement he’ll pass a febrile hand over a forehead scar, like a panicked hostess whose nervous tic of smoothing down that unruly curl surfaces whenever faced with social stress. Banks was a British stage actor who saw action in the First World War; a bad injury left one side of his face partially paralyzed, and the filmmakers—Ernest B. Schoedsack, Irving Pichel, and Merian C. Cooper—take advantage of this disfigurement, often shadowing the paralyzed half so as to split the Count’s face between the benign and the sinister. The effect is like one of those shifting photograph images that present two different views of one picture, depending on how you angle it; only a tilt of the frame is needed to see the brutish Darwinian ancestor beneath the cultured descendant.

Opposing the depraved Count is strapping Joel McCrae as Bob Rainsford, a fellow big-game hunter forced into playing Zaroff’s game Zaroff’s way. Against Banks’ aristocratic thug McCrae comes across like an old-fashioned college football hero: a healthy, fresh-thinking innocent, with a gee-whiz outlook on life—his shipwrecked comrades, he says, were “the swellest crowd on earth”—and with no idea, at first, of what nasty pleasures the Count keeps hinting at. He also doesn’t recognize class distinctions; covering a trench with leaves and branches to trap his foe, he notes that “when Mister Zaroff falls down there, he’ll be all through hunting.” The film pits post-War good, clean all-American muscle against 1920s Euro-trash decadence, as seen in the final hand-to-hand battle between a grimly vengeful Rainsford in torn shirt and khakis and the cocktail-sipping Count in a silk dressing gown. It’s the New World versus the Old, with the victory not in doubt.

Also upping the ante is the appearance of Fay Wray as Eve, another shipwrecked survivor who becomes the contested prize between the two battling men. Wray’s character is not in the original Connell story, but her cinematic addition sharpens the testosterone-fueled clash. “Hunt first the enemy, then the woman,” Zaroff declares, salaciously adding “kill, then love—when you have known that, then you have known ecstasy.” No doubt Wray’s Eve is meant to add what could quaintly be called the sex element (during the climatic hunt, you often wonder which will hold out longer, Eve’s endurance or the straps of her gown), but she does more than provide the requisite romance for McCrae. While Connell’s story clinically describes a competition between matched combatants (both men are equal in hunting skills), Eve’s fragile presence grounds the plot in real feeling. We’re aware how Rainsford’s win or loss is bound up with a gut-twisting dread of what’s in store for her. The lady’s possible fate is foreshadowed in the huge tapestry that hangs on the Count’s chateau’s wall, depicting the mythological battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, its imagery dominated by a figure of a lust-ridden, animalistic monster carrying off a helpless female. The Old World represented by the Count is very old indeed.

However, there’s nothing old about The Most Dangerous Game. Though made well over eighty years ago, the film is still exhilarating to watch, particularly in its pacing of the hunting scenes; the racing point-of-view camera shots through the jungle build like a crescendo to its startling finish. It’s also gorgeously photographed, mist shimmering off flesh and foliage in scenes in a foggy swamp, evoking both dream and nightmare. As many viewers know, Schoedsack and Cooper were filming Game between set-ups for their following, more famous film, King Kong (another tale of the Animal encountering the Human), using the same jungle sets and two of Game‘s stars (Wray and Armstrong). Everyone who’s seen Kong remembers its central character; but Banks, and his portrayal of Zaroff, is just as memorable. The actor’s line readings will stay with you, such as his answer to Rainsford’s inquiry as to what happens if the hunted wins the game: “To Date I Have Not Lost.” Banks doesn’t trumpet the words; he enunciates them clearly, evenly, edging them in acid; he sounds as if speaking through bared teeth. The membrane separating beast and human is thin indeed, and Banks keeps us aware of how tenuous that barrier is. Although Game has been filmed many times since, in varying degrees of fidelity to its original story, this one remains the best. Required viewing.

Compare and Contrast! Satisfy your required-viewing urge by watching 1932’s public-domained The Most Dangerous Game when you click here. Some later film versions of Connell’s tale are: 1945’s low-budget A Game of Death (starring John Loder and Audrey Long; also RKO), which can be seen/compared here; 1956’s big-budget/widescreen/color Run for the Sun (starring Richard Widmark, Jane Greer, and Trevor Howard), which you can watch/compare here; and 1961’s super-low-budget Bloodlust! (starring nobody I know), which adds randy teenagers to the mix and can be seen/compared here (in its own wild-and-woolly way it’s also a must-see).

This article was originally posted on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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