A Game of Death (1945) A Game of Death / Dangerous Adventure (1945) ***

     It’s curious, now that I think about it, that the Code-compliant remake wasn’t a bigger phenomenon from 1934 to 1947 or thereabouts. From the beginning of the American movie industry, every major change in the state of the art of motion picture production has provoked at least a few remakes of yesteryear’s big hits, and the major studios were, if anything, even more dedicated to the practice during the days of their greatest power and influence. So when the unfettering of the Production Code Administration rendered who knows how many once-profitable films functionally ineligible for re-release, past behavior ought to have predicted another remake wave— perhaps not immediately, but surely by the 1940’s, when the studios had accumulated some practice making movies under the new regime. In fact, though, I know of just a handful of examples, including RKO’s A Game of Death. The hugely influential, highly regarded, and all-around pretty brilliant The Most Dangerous Game wasn’t much use to its owners while censorship was in the ascendant, loaded as it was with forbidden subject matter that could be cut only at the cost of reducing the film to utter nonsense. Although bowdlerized prints of The Most Dangerous Game do exist, it’s unclear to me whether they were intended for theatrical release under the Code, or whether they were edited for broadcast on television years later. In either case, they were hardly satisfactory, being either too little or too late. What RKO needed was something along the lines of the MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde— a film just enough like the original to appease its fans, but devoid of controversial content too blatant to be slipped under the vigilant but imperceptive nose of PCA boss Joseph Breen. A Game of Death fit that bill, and again like the MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one of the things that stand out most about it is how much the “clean” version was able to get away with.

     At first, A Game of Death follows The Most Dangerous Game very closely. World-famous big-game hunter Don Rainsford (John Loder, from The Mysterious Doctor and The Woman Who Came Back) is on a South Seas yachting trip with his friends, Whitney (Russell Hicks, of Fingers at the Window and The Flying Saucer) and Collins (Bruce Edwards, from Queen of the Amazons and Bedlam), when disaster strikes. Their intended course takes them down a hazardous strait between two islands, and the buoys marking the navigable channel through the reefs don’t seem to be where they’re shown on the chart. Whitney (who owns the yacht) assumes that the chart is simply out of date— to be fair, not an unreasonable supposition in these little-traveled waters— and orders his crew to forge ahead. The almost immediate result is that the yacht rips open her bottom on the submerged coral. The boiler explodes when the comparatively cold seawater hits it, and Rainsford is the only man aboard who survives both the explosion and the gantlet of hungry sharks waiting between the wreck and the nearest shore.

     Rainsford had heard there was a castle on this island, built by pirates in the 16th or 17th century, and he sets out toward it in the hope that someone might be living there. And indeed someone is. The man who comes to the door in response to Rainsford’s cries is a hulking mute later identified as Carib (Noble Johnson, from The Mad Doctor of Market Street and She), who isn’t likely to be voted Mr. Congeniality anytime soon. Fortunately, the tension is soon eased by Carib’s boss, Erich Kreiger (Edgar Barrier, of Cobra Woman and Arabian Nights). Kreiger is awfully friendly for an eccentric recluse, and quickly begins an animated chat with his unexpected guest. And indeed the two men have much to talk about. Kreiger’s great passion in life is hunting— the bigger, stronger, and craftier the prey, the better— and it wouldn’t be going too far to say that Rainsford is a hero of his. Among the books in his library can be found every one of the renowned huntsman’s memoirs, tutorials, and field guides. So naturally he’s thrilled at the twist of fate that has brought Rainsford to his very doorstep. But surely Rainsford must be tired! Kreiger hands him over to his butler, Pleshke (The Spider Woman’s Gene Roth), and promises him an entertaining evening.

     Rather surprisingly, Kreiger already had guests when Rainsford showed up. Their names are Ellen (Audrey Long) and Robert (Russell Wade, from The Body Snatcher and The Ghost Ship) Trowbridge, and they were shipwrecked in the strait as well. Originally the Trowbridges were half of a party of four, but the other two men have been making themselves inexplicably scarce these past couple days. This is where A Game of Death begins establishing for itself a personality distinct from The Most Dangerous Game’s, because Ellen isn’t the only one harboring suspicions about the missing men this time. What’s more, she and her brother have leapt all the way to the correct conclusion that Kreiger’s scrupulously unidentified ultimate game animal is none other than Homo sapiens, although they’re careful at first about articulating their fears to Rainsford. Kreiger’s guests are more decisive than their 30’s counterparts when it comes to acting on those suspicions, too. As soon as Ellen decides that she trusts him enough to reveal what she believes their host is up to on his island, Rainsford goes to confront Kreiger. He tells him he’s guessed the secret— but then he congratulates Kreiger on his ingenuity and vision, and asks to be taken along on such a hunt as soon as possible. This is pretty much what Kreiger has been fantasizing about since the day he set up shop on the island, so he doesn’t take a lot of convincing to accept the sincerity of Rainsford’s request. The madman’s confidence thus gained, Rainsford returns to the Trowbridges to begin plotting how to turn the tables on their captor.

     Rainsford’s first move is to sneak out of the castle under cover of darkness to stock Kreiger’s jungle with a variety of traditional Southeast Asian antipersonnel devices. It takes well into the morning for the traps to be laid to his satisfaction, so that Ellen must exercise the fullest extent of her “annoying the servants” powers in order to keep Pleshke too busy to summon Rainsford down to breakfast. Robert, meanwhile, keeps Kreiger and Carib occupied by insisting on a crack-of-dawn swimming excursion to the reef-laden strait. Once in the water, he courts danger among the waves and tidal currents as assiduously as he can, secure in the knowledge that it would spoil his host’s plans if any harm were to come to him prematurely. Who knows? Maybe one of Kreiger’s henchmen will hurt himself coming to the rescue if Robert gets into trouble often enough. But for all the captives’ efforts to get the drop on Kreiger before the hunt even begins, the crazed recluse still winds up with the advantage come sundown. Rainsford had to jump straight into bed after sneaking back into his room in order allay Pleshke’s mounting suspicions, you see, and the butler can’t help but notice the mud from the guest’s boots when he goes to change the bedding. Three targets at once are more than Kreiger has ever taken on before, but isn’t the whole point of the exercise to push his abilities to their absolute limits?

     Before I get into the meat of my commentary, let me turn your attention to a minor but amusing detail: Noble Johnson is actually in this movie twice. Although the character’s name and appearance are both radically different, Carib is functionally a reprise of the Cossack Ivan, the role Johnson had played in The Most Dangerous Game thirteen years earlier. One of the ways RKO economized on A Game of Death was by raiding the older film for stock footage featuring sets and miniatures that no longer existed in 1945, and would be prohibitively expensive to rebuild. A lot of that footage came from the climactic chase sequence shot on the King Kong jungle sets, and if you look closely, you’ll see Johnson as Ivan, leading the hounds in pursuit of Rainsford. He’s the henchman with the big, unruly beard.

     Ivan/Carib isn’t the only character to have undergone a name-change between The Most Dangerous Game and A Game of Death, of course; in 1932, Erich Kreiger was called Count Zaroff. The latter alteration is significant, I think. As portrayed in the original film (and in the source story by Richard Connell), Zaroff was a Russian aristocrat, driven from his homeland by revolution, and freed to plumb the darkest depths of depravity by his seclusion from civilization. It was a resonant, maybe even classic characterization, but it was just a tad inconvenient in 1945, when the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in the biggest war in the history of humankind. As for “Kreiger,” neither it nor “Pleshke” is strictly speaking a German name, but they’re each just one letter (or one transposition of letters) off. And in his conversation with Rainsford, Kreiger justifies his practice of hunting humans by asserting his innate personal superiority over his prey. So once again, not explicitly a Nazi, but close enough for pogrom work, right? I don’t know this for certain, of course, but it seems to me that this subliminal wartime propaganda angle might have worked as a sweetener with the censors. Perhaps the Enemy could be permitted to stoop to more dastardly sorts of villainy than a mere gangster or mad scientist. In any case, something enabled A Game of Death to be almost as explicitly horrific as The Most Dangerous Game, even if it was required to dial way back on the sexual perversity.

     Regardless, what impresses me most about A Game of Death is how intelligently it strays from previous interpretations of the story. The 1932 version relies heavily on the obliviousness of Zaroff’s “guests” to the nature of their predicament. Eve (as the Ellen Trowbridge character was called the first time around) was the only one to catch on independently to the danger, and even she didn’t deduce what it actually was until she and Rainsford broke into Zaroff’s trophy room. The Most Dangerous Game’s approach to suspense is thus approximately in line with Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory. Here, though, it’s the prey who have the advantage of knowing what they know before their opponents know they know it. If that makes any sense. Longtime collector though I am of variations on this tale, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that dynamic at work in one. And while I do somewhat miss the frankly sexual aspect of Count Zaroff’s evil, I’m content to trade that for a heroine who takes matters into her own hands as effectively as Ellen Trowbridge. The Most Dangerous Game is still the one to beat when it comes to straight takes on this premise, but A Game of Death has way more going for it than its complete lack of a reputation might be taken to imply.



     The hunt is on here at the B-Masters Cabal! This time, we're taking on an old obsession of mine, movies in which humans are hunted for sport. Click the banner below to see what my colleagues have brought to bay:




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