Typically Fay Wray gets dismissed as the blonde in the hairy paw who only knew how to scream. Movies like Dr. X and The Most Dangerous Game differ with that image. Made in 1932, the latter is a fine example of a Pre-Code American film featuring a strong woman.
Based on a short story by Richard Connell, the movie opens with a surprisingly graphic depiction of a shipwreck of which Joel McCrea’s character, Rainsford, is the sole survivor. He swims to the nearby island where he is astonished to be welcomed by the eccentric Count Zaroff, his sinister Rasputin-like servant Ivan (played by the fine African-American actor, Noble Johnson, in make-up), and two other shipwreck survivors, the Trowbridge siblings. Martin is expansive and perpetually drunk; Eve is reserved.
Later that night she reveals to Rainsford that everything Zaroff told him about the island is a lie. There were many more people from their wreck; gradually they’ve been disappearing, and she fears her brother is next. When they break into the aristocrat’s trophy room, they find that she is correct– it is filled with human heads and medieval torture devices. Martin’s body makes up the newest addition. Zaroff appears and challenges them to a game of “outdoor chess,” his euphemism for hunting human beings– the most dangerous game. If they elude him from midnight until dawn (about four hours) they are free to leave. If they lose, Rainsford will be killed, and (the movie is incredibly frank about this without using the “r” word) he will rape Eve. The chase is on.
And this is where Eve begins to stand out as an unusual heroine. Her intelligence and perception have already been established, but now her physical strength and endurance come in. It is four in the morning when the game begins. She and Rainsford walk over almost the entire island before finding a suitable place to lay a trap for the mad aristocrat. Unlike most heroines of any genre, she never displays fatigue or asks for a rest or water. The movie also establishes that without her help, Rainsford would not have been able to build the traps he set in time. She does panic once, but Zaroff can be a truly frightening figure, and the look he gives Eve when he thinks he has won is as frightening as anything done in a slasher film.
Such a physical heroine is rather unusual in any era, especially coming from how people remember Fay Wray in King Kong. This movie shows that she should be given another look.