Zaroff’s island abode is also the temporary home of brother and sister Trowbridge, the survivors of yet another shipwreck. Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) is an insufferable drunk, and his sister Eve (Fay Wray) quickly takes a shine to the handsome Bob. She also tells him that not all is as it seems on the island.
—Spoilers ahoy! (but, c’mon, who hasn’t heard about this plot twist?)—
It turns out that Zaroff specialises in a particular kind of prey worthy of his skills, said “most dangerous game” of the title: man. It’s not long before Bob himself experiences an ironic inversion of his statement from the beginning, and he is the one being hunted.
At less than 65 minutes, the film is very short. But it doesn’t really need to be any longer than that, since its strength isn’t intricate plotting or interesting protagonists. Its strength is in the premise and the idea of man hunting man, and all the film really needs to do is provide an exciting environment to showcase that idea. In that, it mostly succeeds. The two action scenes (a chase and a close-quarters fight) are thrilling and, given the movie’s age, surprisingly gritty and convincing. The half-hour run-up prior to the revelation of Zaroff’s secret activities is appropriately creepy and full of unease and foreboding tension. There’s also a driving score by Max Steiner which supports the unsettling vibe perfectly.
Perhaps owing to when it was produced (in 1932, the Hays Code had not started to be properly enforced), Zaroff’s psychosis has an unusually open sexual dimension. Unlike Bob, who, when push came to shove, had to admit that his hunter/prey dichotomy didn’t really work for him, Zaroff has taken that philosophy to its extreme. He is defined by the hunt, rarely talking about anything else. Hunting, as he puts it, is the “whip for all other passions”; in other words, it is mandatory foreplay. And after many safaris and many progressively more dangerous escalations, desensitisation set in and literal manhunts became the only thing that could provide pleasure to the Count.
The screenplay follows Richard Connell’s short story, which the film is based on, very closely in both plot progression and dialogue. But it differentiates itself from the story by what it adds, and those additions change the interpretation of Zaroff. In the original, he is all suave, European gentleman with a twisted sense of sportsmanship, and the hunt is just one more expression of decadence and social Darwinism run amok. The Trowbridges are new to the film, and their inclusion does two things: it lessens the force of the comparison evil European/decent American, since Martin Trowbridge is also a degenerate, if in a different way; and Eve’s presence makes it easier to turn Zaroff’s motivating impetus from decadent boredom to a vaguely Freudian mental illness. In other words, the film is less preachy and more grounded while still being very clear about Zaroff’s depravity.
Eve’s role in the movie is far from “just” the protagonist’s token love interest; thematically, she, too represents prey for the Count, but a different kind of prey. Once the precursor (Bob’s hunt) has whetted his appetite, he’ll finally be ready to engage with the sole female on the island “romantically”. Fay Wray isn’t particularly memorable in her role, but then she doesn’t get a lot to work with; her character is more important for what she stands for than for what she does. Ditto Joel McCrea, who is perfunctory as a leading man here (but who can actually act). Leslie Banks, on the other hand, is very good, and his performance in makes the sexual undertones of the movie even more explicit than the screenplay already does.
The Most Dangerous Game is not a grand dissertation on humanity’s potential for cruelty, nor is it some kind of animal welfare anti-hunting sermon. But it’s a competently made action feature with an interesting hook and which presents its central ideas more cohesively and in a more concentrated manner than many much longer films.