Hounds of Zaroff Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Hounds of Zaroff Review

    I've been meaning to cover this title for some time now, but I'd been waiting impatiently for a Blu-ray release to come along that would, hopefully, showcase its definitive presentation. But the arrival of this colourised version - along with yet another restoration for the movie - for its 75th Anniversary has spurred me on, regardless. Basically, even though this is only a SD release, I feel that this is an extremely important film and one that should be appreciated by many more people. And if you are a fan of the original (and still the best) King Kong, then this film is positively essential.

    Legend Films and Genius Entertainment, along with Ray Harryhausen, have produced this new transfer of the awesome 1932 thriller The Most Dangerous Game, a film that is truly ground-breaking, still incredibly potent and one of the most relentlessly streamlined and visceral experiences that early cinema had to offer. Famously directed by Irving (She) Pichel and Ernest b. Schoedsack and produced by Merian C. Cooper, the film was made on the same sets as, and starred two of the leads of King Kong - which, along with Willis O'Brien, Schoedsack and Cooper also created. Although work on The Most Dangerous Game began before Kong, the two productions ended up combating one another in the production rush for release. But although this conflict of scheduling and logistics played havoc on some occasions, the solid core of production personnel, effects work, innovative art design, the same composer (in Max Steiner) ultimately ensured that RKO had two critical and commercial hits on their hands. And whilst Kong, unsurprisingly, overshadowed Dangerous Game and went on to become one of the greatest motion pictures of all-time, much of its unforgettable and audacious pioneering achievements had their roots in this little 63-minute tour de force of thrills and chills.

    “Oh Martin, turn in early, please.”

    “Don't worry. The Count will take care of me.”

    The Count: “Indeed I shall.”

    Known as The Hounds Of Zaroff in the UK, the film was based on the short story, The Most Dangerous Game, by novelist and screenwriter Richard Connell. Marvellously adapted by James A. Creelman, who toiled away on Kong's screen saga, as well, the film tells of a famous big game hunter called Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) who gets washed-up on the island of mad Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) after his ship has been wrecked on the rocks just off-shore. The only survivor of the disaster, Rainsford finds that he isn't alone in the Count's malevolent castle, for the fugitives from another, earlier wreck - brother and sister Martin and Eve Trowbridge (King Kong's Robert Armstrong and the iconic Fay Wray) - are also holed-up there, now the guests of the rather intense and eccentric Zaroff and his unsettlingly thug-like menservants. Playing the cordial host, Zaroff is immediately overjoyed to have Rainsford in attendance, for the Count, himself, is also a die-hard and obsessive hunter. During the evening, Zaroff can't help but regale his luckless visitors with how his passion for the kill has evolved, out of boredom and a lack of challenge, from simple animals to, ahem, a much more “dangerous game”. Intrigued by such a kindred spirit, Rainsford is keen to hear more, but whilst Martin falls under the spell of the Count's liberal drinks cabinet, Eve has most certainly not fallen for the Count's suavely sinister party manners and endeavours to warn the newcomer that all is most definitely not right on the island. Other members of their party, who had also survived the sinking of their ship, have, it seems, gone missing, one by one, after first being treated to a tour of the Count's Trophy Room, an almost sacred chamber lurking behind a forbidding iron door. She confesses that the Count has even lied about his private launch being in need of repair, as she has heard it in use during the night.

    When her brother goes missing later in the dark, still hours, Eve's concerns for his safety lead her and Rainsford down into the Trophy Room, and a very gruesome surprise. When Zaroff's nasty secret is revealed - he has been luring ships onto the treacherous rocks by relocating the buoys in the bay and using any survivors that happen upon his shore as prey in his vicious hunting sessions - the Count gives the pair a deadly ultimatum. If they can make it through the entire next day and night, and on until the following dawn, they can go free. But he will be hunting them down with bow and arrow, high-powered rifle, a pack of ferocious dogs and all of his devilish cunning. It is now Rainsford's turn to feel the terror of being pursued and he will need every trick that he has learned over the years if he is to outwit Count Zaroff and get Eve and himself off this infernal island.

    With such a adrenalised premise as this, The Most Dangerous Game becomes the epitome of what would later be termed as a cinematic roller-coaster ride. Once the action gets underway, it simply doesn't stop for breath. The fabulous jungle set created on Stage 11 at the RKO-Pathe lot in Culver City featured craggy cliffs, jagged ravines, a thunderous waterfall, a fog-shrouded swamp and an abyssal canyon bridged by a huge fallen tree. Most of this wonderful and atmospheric dressing would also be seen in King Kong, especially that tree-bridge over the hellish drop that would become the scene of Kong's most infamous assault when he would shake the Venture's hapless crew from it into the (unseen) Spider-Pit below. Utilising the same unique painted glass-plate techniques as the bigger monster picture to help establish enormous depth and texture to the lush island foliage, Dangerous Game's evocative visuals lent the movie a grandeur, a scope and a sense of the fantastique that had not been seen before. Universal's creepy Gothic sets and intricate, lightning-lit model-work were bone-chilling all right, but Schoedsack, Cooper and Pichel fashioned a hellish vision of primal terror with gloomy caves, thick coiling tendrils of undergrowth, prehistoric trees and vast rocky enclaves, not to mention a brooding, melancholy fortress to rival the likes of Castle Frankenstein. It should be noted at this stage, that the colourised version, endorsed by Ray Harryhausen, mimics the artwork and colour stills that I've seen from the production ... and doesn't appear to be mere guesswork on the part of the designers. The tendency to make things vivid and garish has not occurred, and the film looks quite sublime, eerie and fresh, almost water-coloured. It is obviously not to everyone's taste - that's a given - but I actually appreciate the look, though only as an occasional alternative to the original.

    “This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that.”

    Famous last words, eh?

    The partnership of Pichel and Schoedsack was a symbiotic one. Pichel handled the dialogue scenes as the studio feared that Schoedsack, who was more attuned to action and rugged outdoor episodes, took care of the more dynamic and dramatic sequences which, ultimately, became the majority of the movie. Schoedsack was also responsible for bringing what was initially expected to be an 85-minute movie right down to just over an hour. To keep on track time-wise and budget-wise, whole scenes were dropped, as well as unnecessary additional characters during the first act. It is also true that Schoedsack didn't really believe that were making a good film, let alone a great one, and was prone to being a little dismissive of it. The focus, naturally, was on getting Kong done right and Dangerous Game was merely a programmer that could help them sweeten the deal and test some experimental photographic and effects techniques before the main event. Thus, he was as surprised as everyone else at how extraordinarily popular and satisfying the final cut turned out to be. In England, especially, the film was well received but, then again, the subject matter was probably a lot closer to home for us in Blighty, with our class system, than it was the American market.

    “I was thinking of the inconsistency of civilization. The beast of the jungle, killing just for his existence, is called savage. The man, killing just for sport, is called civilized. It's a bit inconsistent, isn't it?”

    As well as pulse-pounding direction that guarantees that the action will never let up, the camerawork from Henry Gerrard is absolutely superlative. Racing alongside the hunted and the hunters, incorporating pell-mell tracking shots, innovative ground-up views that transform Zaroff, his men and his hounds into leviathan monsters (and presaging the rampage of various Skull Island denizens to come) and smooth zooms with cracker-jack editing from Archie Marshek, we are utterly bound to the unfolding drama. That famous shot of Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot plunging through the jungle as they plummet from an angered Kong actually has its genesis here in Dangerous Game, when Wray, who was clearly an expert at it by the time she ran from this shoot to that of Kong, and McCrea frantically tear through the foliage in full terrified flight from Banks and those over-eager dogs. Deep-focus frames allow for sinuously creepy shots of the Count moving through the undergrowth much further back in the shot as his prey cowers in the foreground, and marvellous glass plates transform San Pedro's picturesque bays into the raging surf that claimed Rainsford's ship. A weird filter over the lens distorts the shot of the hero hauling himself from the waves and onto Zaroff's beach, giving the image a sort of fatigued, waterlogged, fish-eye appearance that would almost certainly be an accurate depiction of Rainsford's bleary vision. Buster (Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers) Crabbe even trained the stuntmen who take the plunge into the waves as the ship erupts into flames and breaks apart during the shockingly abrupt disaster. And, just to add to the film's unarguably incredible roster of talent and innovation, the studio even hired vaudeville's greatest knife-thrower, Yaqui Indian Esteban Clemente (aka Steve Clemento) to play Zaroff's Mongolian henchman, Tartar, who uses his skills with skin-prickling dexterity during the vicious skirmish in the fortress. As a side-note, it is also widely held that Clemente sort of founded the classic start of King Kong, as his tale of how he recruited a pretty assistant for his stage-act was actually incorporated into how Robert Armstrong's madcap filmmaker, Carl Denham, finds and procures Fay Wray's Ann Darrow as she attempts to steal an apple.

    Both films, once more, proving to be virtually inseparable.

    The father of the modern film-score, Max Steiner, almost didn't compose for this one. At the time of the film's production, he was the head of RKO's Music Department, and was keen to assign the project to W. Franke Harling, who did, indeed, go on to compose a full score for the movie. But when Schoedsack and Cooper heard the music, they decided that it was too upbeat and lightweight - almost Broadway in style - and pleaded with Steiner to fit this production into his already packed slate. Harassed and harangued, and already committed to Kong's seminal score, Steiner nevertheless came up with the goods and completed his revolutionary score for The Most Dangerous Game just two weeks before its 9th September 1932 release date. The founder of filmic leit-motif, having assimilated its values from opera, Steiner wrote some of the most intense action music that the movies would ever experience up until the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams arrived on the scene. Transforming a bizarre waltz for Zaroff - that the Count actually plays at his own piano - into the main themes of aggression, violence and death, Steiner turns on the testosterone for a simply breathless catalogue of symphonic fury. He would do the same, only to much greater acclaim, for King Kong, but there is a growing school of thought that his music for The Most Dangerous Game was actually the first recognisably original complete film score of the era. And its composer's distinctive style - full of swirling brass, strings and pounding timpani and bass pushed into a headlong rush of staggering speed and complex rhythms - would become de rigour for Steiner, and would go on to see extensive service in She, They Died With Their Boots On, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, Son Of Kong, The Searchers and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, as well as King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game. But he also concocts some terrific spine-tingling moments of creeping dread and ominous foreboding, beholden to the Count and his haunted abode that would be terrific even in the province of a Lugosi, Karloff or Lionel Atwill picture.

    “Here on my island, I hunt ... the most dangerous game.”

    A war wound had left one half of Leslie Banks' face paralysed and Schoedsack found ample opportunity to exploit this Jekyll and Hyde countenance. Pseudo-charming moments when the Count is playing at being the cordial host favour the sophisticated side, whilst, once the metaphorical mask is off, and the hunt is on, the more brutish side is showcased. Added to this, of course, is the standard requirement of any villain from the era - a livid scar that traces a painful line down his head, a reminder of one of his safaris' closest-calls. Banks assumed the role from the younger Bruce Cabot who would, as it transpired, go on to become the hero of King Kong, Jack Driscoll. A Scouser, Banks was also a noted stage actor, and Count Zaroff would actually be his ticket to the big screen and to Hollywood, and would become the start of a critically acclaimed career on both sides of the Atlantic. Perfectly at home as the charming and urbane aristocrat, he was also wildly demented and frightening once armed and in-pursuit. Banks played both elements with obvious wit and sophistication, his accent just the right side of cliché and his despicable villainy having a lot more depth and texture than the script and the original short story initially possessed. Some may consider the odd mannerism - touching the scar on his head, caressing the fangs of a tiger's skull - as arch and pantomimic, but they are totally in-character for a man whose lunacy has broken free from his own skull and now runs wild and scheming across the island. Banks gives the impression of a man forever chasing his own glorious ideal and his own frustrations at never actually managing to catch up with it are quite intuitive and advanced for the period.

    “If you choose to play the leopard, I shall hunt you like a leopard ...”

    Armstrong acquits himself well in what amounts to the comedy role of the film. Already known for his “sketches” and routines - which is how he came to find his way into the movies in the first place - he is the wisecracking drunk, blind to the threat all around him and obviously content to stay with the Count just as long as the liqueur is being poured. McCrea has the looks and the style of the era's preferred leading man, and would go on to enjoy a healthy career as precisely that. Fiercely game for anything, he throws himself into the part with real gusto, fashioning a hero who is believably dependable, skilled and physically fit, yet we also buy into the fact that he knows damn well that he is as at a severe disadvantage and, therefore, vulnerable. There is a genuine desperation at play that works realistically with his own determined resilience. And, for her part, Fay Wray was an exceptionally busy girl during this period. Working horribly long hours on both this and Kong - the lengthy set-ups for the effects shots on Kong were precisely what enabled her to do her scenes on Dangerous Game - she also managed to perform her roles on Doctor X and Mysteries Of The Wax Museum, as well. Although not a character in the original story, Creelman brilliantly reshaped the plot to incorporate her as much, much more than a mere damsel in distress. With Zaroff uncomfortably keen to reinforce his doctrine of hunting first the enemy and then the woman, Wray's Eve becomes the focus of his blood-hungry lust, the prize that awaits him, so to speak. We are under no illusion just what he has in store for her once the thrill of the kill has evolved into something just as primal, and probably just as violent. Cinematic codes and standards were still a few years off, but it is safe to assume that Zaroff's debauched insinuations towards her and his linking of sex with his predatory instincts would most surely not have made it through the censors. But Wray does manage to keep her top on in this adventure - a condition, it is worth noting, that would take a fifty foot gorilla to change.

    “Only after the kill does a man know the true ecstasy of love.”

    The film's violence is quite eye-opening for those who think that productions from this era are relatively cosy. Pre-empting even the grisly excesses (comparatively speaking, of course) of Universal's output that was to follow, Dangerous Game has a gleefully malicious streak running right through to its core. Zaroff's Trophy Room is bedecked with gruesome adornments from his hunts. Severed heads and all manner of spiked contraptions evoke thoughts of Fu Manchu, and Zaroff's assertion that a couple of hours trapped in their company will convince even the staunchest victim to rethink their refusal to play his game holds true enough. Apparently, Schoedsack even visited morgues and mortuaries to learn how human heads could be preserved, such was the level of authenticity he was aiming for. Zaroff's typically sadistic henchmen - a mute, ogre-like Cossack and a blade-throwing descendant of Attila The Hun - also provide some primal chills and the iconic image of the Tartar Bow is like a vintage take on Rambo's knife. Pichel relishes the vocal threat, whilst Schoedsack, the real-life adventurer, reveals some penchant for shocking brutality. Sharks devour the foundering crew of the wrecked ship. Spiked booby-traps impale the unwary. A pulverising tussle results in an highly unusual and shockingly graphic - and noisy - spine-snapping. A Malay Dead-Fall Trap was so precise and accurate that it was actually a genuinely lethal threat on the set. The use of real leopards and a jaguar proved so perilous that Schoedsack was forced to rethink Zaroff's animal contingent and, in the end, felt compelled to hire comic superstar Harold Lloyd's pack of Great Danes and to have their fur darkened in order to make them look more satanic. The film positively revels in unsavoury delights. James Whale and Universal had taken screen horror - and, more importantly, the implication of it - to new extremes with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and Schoedsack, Cooper and RKO were hot on their trailblazing heels with this and the actually quite savage King Kong.

    And, carrying on in this vein, the debt to classical horror, as seen by Universal's burgeoning cannon, was clear. Zaroff, a mad Count, is surely part monster, but if his evil is of the demented, psychologically twisted kind, his leering, wholly malevolent Cossack lieutenant Ivan (Skull Island native chief Noble Johnson), is a purely physical brute force. Looking like a cross between a lumpier, shorter Boris Karloff (from The Old Dark House) and, believe it or not, a slightly hairier version of Emmerdale's Zack Dingle, this leering beast-man is a manifestation of wanton cruelty and intimidation.

    With so much going for it, it is bewildering that many more people don't give The Most Dangerous Game the recognition it deserves. Extremely fast and tightly scripted, this is exactly the type of intelligent, yet primal locomotive that studios clamour to get on to the screens these days. Only in this case, the film is actually shorn of romantic pace-slowing, tension-sapping morals - we don't get the impression that Rainsford will quit his favourite hobby anytime soon as a result of these horrific experiences - and toned-down, PG-13 rated violence. It remains a taut and lethal, short, sharp, shock of a movie that sits hand in paw with King Kong and, indeed, the two make for a terrific and exhaustingly punishing double-bill.

    The Most Dangerous Game is absolutely wonderful, folks. Consummate film-making and outrageous concepts hurled together at a time when the motion picture was still finding its feet and attempting what many considered to be impossible. And you've got the gorgeous Fay Wray ... so what's not to love?

    Hunt it down now.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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