Between 1934 and the late 1950s, The Hays Code ruled the limits of what Hollywood could show on screen. Intended to protect viewers from the offensive, the outrageous and the stimulating. Fixing our cinematic viewing into a box of that which is good, Christian and wholesome. There was some positivity to this. The limitations meant filmmakers had to use their wiles to tell stories within these constraints. Leading to some surprisingly strong female characters compared to films released afterwards – the 1970s where things suddenly became much friskier alongside being much more exploitative
It also means that films released before The Hays Code can sometimes be surprisingly provocative. The Most Dangerous Game was one of the last few films to really push the boundaries of what audiences could handle. Released in 1932, it was faced with walkouts, fainting and censorship in its international releases.
Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is on a luxury yacht near South America with a number of aristocrats. He discusses his passions, primarily hunting, claiming that the Tigers and other large game he hunts in far flung places enjoy this pursuit as much as he does. Unfortunately, the yacht finds itself running aground near an island, most of his companions either drown or are taken by sharks, Rainsford is the only survivor.
He swims to the island and finds himself at the door of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Dracula-esque host who continues the conversations around hunting and its merits. Alongside a couple of other shipwreck victims, Eve (Fay Wray) and her brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). Eve has her suspicions about Zaroff, and his heavily fortified trophy room.
These suspicions are confirmed when Martin disappears, they break into the trophy room to find a collection of severed heads, and Eve and Rainsford find themselves the target of Zaroffs latest hunt.
Hellishly dark, violent and shocking, The Most Dangerous Game is a story often mimicked. From Predator to The Hunt to First Blood, the concept of hunting people as sport is a compelling one. The interesting thing in this piece is how the victim is himself a hunter. Of course, it expresses itself in practical terms, Rainsford has more skill than most of Zaroff's victims, but also in ironic ones. Rainsford is forced to confront his own opinions about the subjects of his life's work, or one assumes he is.
The Most Dangerous Game is very short, a little over an hour, but it manages to tell a compelling and gripping story in that time. A surprisingly action packed horror with some genuine chills and shocks.
The new Masters of Cinema release from Eureka has a decent collection of bonus features, though Kim Newman's speech around it amounts to little more than a list of other similar films as it goes on. However he does offer some compelling background around the short story that originated it. Stephen Thrower does similar, offering a little more information that many will find of interest. Aside from this there is an archived interview and a number of radio adaptations of the same story. The bonus features are unfortunately not the selling point of this release, but thankfully the film itself is solid enough to more than make up for it.
The Most Dangerous Game is released onto the Eureka! Masters of Cinema collection on October 24th.