Home > Reviews > THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME – Max Steiner



Original Review by Craig Lysy

RKO Radio Pictures executives saw the popularity of the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, which was published by Collier’s Magazine and decided that it should be adapted to the big screen. They purchased the film rights, and assigned Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and David O. Selznick to produce. The team of Irving Pichel and Ernest Schoedsack would direct the film with a budget of $220,000. James Ashmore Creelman was hired to write the screenplay, and a fine cast was assembled, which included Joel McCrea as Robert Rainsford, Fay Wray as Eve Trowbridge, Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff, Robert Armstrong as Ivan, Steve Clemente as Tartar, Dutch Hendrian as Servant, and William Davidson as the Captain. The story is set in 1932 off the western coast of South America. Renowned big game hunter and author Bob Rainsforth is enjoying a cruise on a luxury yacht through a channel in the remote Tierra Del Fuego. The Captain raises concerns when the channel lights vary from his charts but is ordered to proceed by the yacht’s owner. The yacht runs aground upon a shoal, sinks, and explodes, with Rainsforth the only survivor.

He manages to swim ashore, wanders, and then to his great surprise discovers a chateau. He is greeted by its owner, a Russian Count Zaroff, who advises him of four other survivors; Eve Trowbridge, her brother Martin, and two sailors. Zaroff relates that he too is a great hunter who has become bored until he discovered the “most dangerous game”. Bob and Eve later discover what he meant when they sneak into his trophy room to discover trophies of men’s heads. With all pretenses removed, Zaroff makes Bob an offer – he will be given a twelve-hour head start on the island, and then Zaroff will begin hunting at midnight. If he survives as prey until 4am, he wins, will be set free, and allowed to leave the island by boat. Eve demands to join him and Zaroff assures her that he does not hunt women, but when Bob loses, she must return with him. They are set loose at dawn and do their best to evade Zaroff, but Bob is cornered by a waterfall and while fighting off a hunting dog is apparently shot by Zaroff and falls into the waters below. Eve is taken back to the chateau and later to her and Zaroff’s surprise Bob returns. He relates that the Zaroff’s shot killed the dog, not him. The Count admits defeat, hands him the keys to the boat, but then reaches for a pistol in his desk. A fight ensues, Zaroff is mortally wounded and Bob and Eve escape to the boat. Zaroff muscles his last strength to shoot them with a bow as they depart, yet collapses and falls to a gruesome death, devoured by his ravenous hunting dogs. The film was a commercial success for RKO earning $443,000 or twice its production cost of $220,000. It received widespread critical praise, however did not secure any Academy Awards nominations.

Max Steiner had been hired by RKO as Director of Music and acquainted himself well with his first score to the western Cimarron in 1931. When The Most Dangerous Game began production he was very busy with other projects and so assigned W. Franke Harling to score the film. Producer Merian Cooper however rejected the score, complaining it was too “Broadway-light”, which forced Steiner to compose a replacement score in only two weeks. For his soundscape he composed four primary themes; Count Zaroff’s Theme serves as the identity of our diabolical villain, and by extension the henchmen whom he commands. Steiner conceived to express the Count with juxtaposition by utilizing an elegant valzer malinconico, which outwardly speaks to his aristocratic bearing and cultured sophistication, while belaying his covert malevolence. The theme is quite malleable, showing elegance and sophistication when the Count is acting as a gracious host, yet also malevolence when transformed into a hunting anthem. Count Zaroff has a second theme, the Hunter’s Theme, a simple two-note construct kindred to his personal theme in that it is derived from the waltz. This is well-conceived given the hunter represents the Count’s evil shadow. Horn calls are traditional for the commencement of a hunt and Steiner draws on this tradition. Robert’s Theme supports our hero and is expressed by confident strings, fortified by proud horn calls. Its forthrightness and innate optimism serve as the perfect foil to Zaroff’s diabolical menace. Lastly, we have Eve’s Theme, the score’s only feminine construct. Eve psyche is fragile and anxious and her music often emotes frantically by strings agitato with a nervous energy. Yet when comforted and secure with Robert, the strings warm and a graceful lyricism unfolds. Where the scores soars is in the ferocious action writing, perhaps the finest in Steiner’s canon.

“Main Title” opens ominously with declarations of the Hunter Theme by horns sinistre. These declarations join with a tense dramatic ascent motif as a door knocker with a gruesome carved image is lifted and knocks against a massive door. The knock triggers the film’s title to display, and this musical cycle repeats, supporting subsequent knocks, each of which reveals additional opening credits. We crescendo at 0:52 with the final knock opening the door, which initiates the roll of the opening credits. Dark horn declarations usher in a powerful and dramatic statement of Count Zaroff’s Theme, which sets the tone of the film. Two candles display against a dark drape background as the last credits display and Zaroff’s Theme makes one last sinister statement. At 1:06 we segue into the film proper carried by a languorous nautical motif as we observe two buoy beacons alight in a channel and a yacht cruising against the night lite skies. The motif gently carries us into the yacht’s interior where a clock displays 8:00 pm. “The Wreck” reveals the Captain expressing his concerns to the First Mate that the buoy’s location does not match his navigation charts. He brings his concerns to the owner, but his requests to turn about is denied and he is ordered to continue through the channel. As Robert and the other passengers discuss his hunting exploits, he is asked if he would ever consider changing roles from being the hunter, to being the hunted. Steiner supports with source music, A Moment in the Dark (1931) by Carmen Lombardo, which establishes a casual ambiance. Suddenly the ship runs aground on a shoal and everyone is knocked off their feet. Sea water floods into the boilers, which causes a massive explosion with the men jumping into the sea. Some drown, and music enters as we see gruesome shark attacks unfold. Steiner supports the mayhem with an orchestral torrent propelled by horns of doom, timpani barbaro and a maelstrom of woodwinds and horns. At 0:40 Robert makes a bold decision to swim to the shore, supported by strings of desperation and timpani. He safely gains the beach, and the music dissipates on a diminuendo as he collapses from exhaustion.

“The Approach” offers a score highlight where Steiner’s capacity to sow unease and menace are on display. Repeated statements of a foreboding Hunter’s Theme sow’s disquiet as Robert wakes. An ascent motif supports his climb to a bluff overlooking the channel, and as he looks out upon it, with the two buoys alight in the night sky, Zaroff’s Theme resounds powerfully at 0:43 for a grand statement full of menace. As he turns and walks inland the auras of Zaroff’s Theme carry his progress. At 1:11 Zaroff’s Theme resounds once more and joins in unholy communion with the calls of the Hunter’s Theme as he discovers a chalet in the distance and walks towards it. As he reaches the entrance and climbs the stairs, Steiner matches his footfalls and walk to the massive door. He knocks once and after no answer prepares to knock again when the door opens slowly at 1:38, supported by a menacing statement of Zaroff’s Theme. A bass cadence once again supports his footfalls as he enters the chalet’s massive grand room and calls out. At 2:00 sinister calls of the Hunter Theme usher in a powerful and grim statement of Zaroff’s Theme as the door closes and reveals the Cossack Ivan. A diminuendo of uncertainty support Roberts futile efforts to communicate. In “The Mural” Count Zaroff descends the grand staircase and introduces himself, and Ivan to Robert. He is charming, hospitable and offers Robert a guest room, fresh clothes and a stiff drink, which Robert graciously accepts. As Robert ascends the stairs, Zaroff’s Theme caries his progress, only to be shattered by a horrific orchestral outcry of dread as he stops to view a mural of a fiendish centaur abducting a maiden. As he looks back, we see Zaroff bearing a sinister smile. The music for this scene is not found on the album.

“Zaroff’s Tales” takes place later that night when he escorts Robert downstairs to have coffee with his other guests, whom he introduces as Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin. The conversation turns to hunting, which Zaroff reveals is his passion. Yet the discussion takes a dark turn when he alludes that he has found something new to hunt, which he describes as “The Most Dangerous Game”. This scene was not scored. “Russian Waltz” offers a beautiful score highlight, with Steiner’s most elegant exposition of Count Zaroff’s Theme by solo piano. Martin asks Zaroff to play the piano, to which he obliges. Steiner graces us with sublime elegance as we bear witness to an exquisite rendering of the waltz. As he plays, Eve takes Robert to an alcove sofa where she shows him Zaroff’s hunting dogs, and shares her concerns that the two sailors who survived with them have disappeared. Lastly, she confides that the Count’s trophy room lies at the bottom of the stairs. We see in her eyes that she is anxious and very unsettled. In “Incidental Music” Zaroff orders Eve to bed, and Robert also agrees to turn in. As she ascends the stairs Zaroff’s Theme carries her ascent. As she turns to ask Martin to also go to bed at 0:20, the music darkens and becomes sinister as the Count says he will take care of Martin. As the camera slowly zooms in on is eyes from Eve’s perspective, the music mutates, grows grotesques and culminates in a horrific orchestral shriek as his glaring eyes reveal maniacal purpose.

“Agitato” offers a fine score highlight where Steiner’s music astutely sow’s unease and ratchets up the tension. It reveals Robert awakened by someone knocking on his locked bedroom door. A forlorn flute, attended by bassoon and strings of uncertainty emote the Zaroff’s Theme as he rises and unlocks the door. At 0:29 Eve enters, she is very unsettled and concerned for her brother’s welfare. Steiner introduces her theme as a string agitato, full of nervous energy and rising horns of disquiet. She convinces Robert to join her and they decide to begin the search at the mysterious iron door to the Count’s trophy room. As they depart Zaroff’s Theme returns as a dark misterioso replete with ethereal harp as they reach the iron door. To their amazement the door is unlocked. As the descend the stairs at 1:36, a descent motif carries their progress. They cautiously enter the dark chamber, lit only by a single candle flame Robert carries, supported by Zaroff’s Theme born by clarinet, bass clarinet and dire horns, which stoke fear. A misterioso unfolds as they search the chamber and we conclude on a crescendo of horror as they discover a human head mounted on the wall. “Captured” reveals the arrival of Zaroff and his henchmen bearing a body. Eve confronts Zaroff and Robert confirms the corpse as Martin’s. She is carried off screaming, while Robert is bound and asked to join Zaroff in hunting humans.

His refusal outrages Zaroff who then states that since he will not join him, he will become his prey. His men take him up and exit the chalet. Eve is frantic and runs from her bedroom to the chalet front door. Her theme emotes as an agitato and carries her progress. She joins Robert at the entry, who remains bound. The music for this scene is not found on the album.

In “The Iron Door” Zaroff states that they will be released, and if they can survive from midnight to dawn, he will give them his boat to leave. The Hunter Theme resounds as Zaroff orders his men to release him. Robert is determined to survive, and he and Eve depart at 0:14 carried confidently by proud horn declarations of his theme. His theme carries their progress countered by rising tension as they enter the jungle. With the exception of Zaroff’s Theme sounding on grim horns at 1:05 as he enters the chalet to rest for tonight’s hunt, most of this cue was dialed out of the film. I will assess the album presentation. At 0:42 Eve’s Theme interplays providing a sense of urgency as they struggle through the harsh terrain. I believe the scene would have benefitted from the music. At 1:25 a stepped ascent supports their climb to reach a bluff, which reveals how tiny the island is, to which Robert remarks will make Zaroff’s hunt easy. He decides to build a Malay deadfall trap and so they descend to the jungle floor carried by a stepped descent motif. At 1:46 Robert’s and Eve’s themes interplay as they build the trap, countered at 2:01 by a dire iteration of Zaroff’s Theme, which resounds with deafening brutal power. We close with nightfall on a diminuendo of uncertainty. “Night” reveals Robert securing the trip wire, and covering it with grass to conceal it. His theme ascends on clarinet, countered by kindred woodwinds and later strings with flute and harp adornment as the trap is set. At 0:33 an ominous rendering of Zaroff’s Theme informs us of his lurking presence. We close at 0:44 with Eve’s agitato as she sees Zaroff approaching from a distance.

“The Count Approaches” opens with an ominous stepped chordal crescendo, which carries Zaroff’s arrival, armed with his bow and arrows. At 0:45 Eve’s Theme emotes as flight music as they race to take cover in a cave. Roberts Theme sounds confidently at 1:03 as he takes the knife from Eve and watches Zaroff advance towards the trip wire. A menacing Zaroff’s Theme and the Hunter’s Theme join in unholy communion as he reaches the trip wire. Zaroff notices the trap and triggers it with an arrow. He then shoots an arrow the narrowly misses Eve. Unable to flush them out he states that he will hunt them like leopards and departs carried by ominous horns. At 1:41 they emerge from the cave as confident trumpets buttress Robert’s Theme. “Misterioso Dramatico” opens with Robert’s Theme as he discloses that Zaroff’s threat to hunt them like leopards means that he will return with a rifle. Eve panics at 0:19 and flees carried by her theme rendered as flight music, eventually overtaken by Robert’s Theme as he catches her. At 0:47 a grim Zaroff’s Theme sounds as Robert points to the swamp ahead where Zaroff traps his prey. At 1:07 a cascading horn descent supports Robert casting a rock into a deep ravine. He resolves to build a trap with a faux bridge over the ravine. His ascending theme supports its construction but is severed at 1:33 as spooked birds inform him of Zaroff’s approach. High tremolo strings and his theme carry his approach to the ravine. He shoots at a bush Robert is moving as a distraction, and then advances with an orchestral shriek at 2:38 as he almost falls into the ravine. With their trap foiled, Robert and Eve make a desperate dash into the fog covered swamp. With only half an hour left and his rifle useless in the fog, Zaroff at 3:45 sounds the Hunter’s Theme diegetically with his hunting horn and summons his ravenous hounds, which race towards him.

“The Chase” offers a riveting masterpiece action cue, one of the finest in Steiner’s canon. The hounds have arrived and Zaroff sets them loose. We see Robert and Eve desperately running and stumbling in the swamp with the hounds and Zaroff in pursuit. Steiner whips his orchestra into frenzy and propels the chase with a kinetic tour de force. Thematic interplay is outstanding as Robert’s Theme contests with Zaroff’s and the Hunter’s Themes – predator versus prey. We crescendo and painfully climax at 2:00 as Ivan impales himself on a sharp pole Robert planted in the path. The chase resumes in earnest propelled by horns barbaro which resound fiercely at 3:03 as the hounds close. We crescendo at 3:19 atop the dire horns of the Hunter’s Theme as Eve falls on a log bridge. Desperate strings emote Robert’s Theme as the dogs close, gaining some confidence at 3:41 as they climb a tree and barely escape the dogs. Zaroff closes empowered by his theme but arrives too late for a clear shot. The chase resumes with the ferocious music swelling relentlessly empowered by deafening declarations of the Hunter’s Theme as Zaroff again closes. We segue into “The Chase Continues” with growing urgency as terror is seen in Robert and Eve’s eyes, while Zaroff’s eyes are those of a madman. An urgent accelerando ascent commences at 0:39 as Robert and Eve ascend in elevation until 0:52 as a descent motif carries us seamlessly into “The Waterfall” where we see they are trapped with no escape. At 0:23 Zaroff’s Theme swells as he arrives and is joined by the Hunter’s Theme as he with grim satisfaction unleashes one of his hounds. A ferocious accelerando commences at 0:52 as Robert struggles with the hound. A crescendo builds cresting with Zaroff’s Theme as Robert appears to be losing, until 1:15 when Robert stabs the dog and a descent motif carries its fall into the raging waters below. At 1:20 a new accelerando commences as Zaroff unleashes a second hound. It crests at 1:25 as he shoots and Robert and the dog fall off the ledge. A descent motif is short-lived as the Hunter’s Theme resounds on horns as Zaroff achieves his kill. A frantic Eve’s Theme resumes as Zaroff’s henchman grabs her. She struggles but is easily overcome. At 1:47 Zaroff looks at his watch, which reveals he achieved the kill with only one minute to spare. A horrific iteration of his theme resounds as he savors his victory. We close darkly as Eve looks into Zaroff’s diabolical eyes in terror and they depart.

“Aftermath” reveals Zaroff back at his chalet enjoying a drink. He orders his servant to fetch Eve and then proceeds to play his theme on the piano. The music for this scene is not found on the album. In “The Fight” Robert enters the chalet and slams the door bolt to alert Zaroff of his presence. Zaroff is stunned that he survived and congratulates Robert for defeating him. Robert will have none of it and begins approaching him with menacing fury in his eyes. Zaroff tosses him the key to the boathouse and moves slowly to grab a revolver from his desk. Robert lunges and a fight ensues. Steiner whips his orchestra into frenzy as the men fist fight. At 0:32 Robert’s Theme burst forth and is ascendant as Zaroff is stunned and his henchman joins the fight. Strings furioso and horns barbaro propel the fight, which shifts to a tension ascent as Robert breaks the man’s back and Zaroff grabs some arrows. As he looks up at 1:10 Zaroff is drawing his bow. He lunges supported by blaring horns and the fight resumes in earnest, building on a dramatic crescendo, which dissipates as Robert plunges an arrow into Zaroff’s back, mortally wounding him. We flow seamlessly into “Escape – Finale” as Eve enters and screams as the servant throws a knife at Robert which misses. Robert grabs the pistol and the servant flees before he can fire. Robert grabs Eve and they flee propelled by interplay of their themes rendered as flight music. At 0:19 Zaroff’s Theme sounds as the servant returns and prepares to throw a knife. Eve screams and Robert shoots him before he could throw it. Strings furioso propel their escape to the boat as Zaroff summons his last bit of strength to prepare his bow for one last shot from the window above supported by a declaration of his theme at 0:45. As they depart frantic horns carry their progress. At 1:08 a grim string tremolo ushers in a dramatic ascent, which crests with a resounding declaration of Zaroff’s Theme as he draws his bow. Yet the force of his theme gives way as he collapses, unable to launch the shot. Steiner concludes the film with a grand flourish of Zaroff’s Theme as we see him fall into the courtyard, where he is devoured by his ravenous hounds.

I would like to once again offer a heartfelt thank you to the production team of John W. Morgan and William Stromberg for this masterful restoration of Max Steiner’s masterwork “The Most Dangerous Game”. This early career work has been long sought by collectors and Steinerphiles, and the album, which includes “The Son of Kong” is outstanding. The audio quality is excellent and the performance of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under William Stromberg’s baton, masterful. Steiner was under tremendous duress due to an imposed time constraint of two weeks in which he had to compose, spot and record the score. He understood that the film offered an intimate character driven drama, which explored one of humanity’s most primal instinctual drives – to hunt. To that end, Steiner composed four themes, which masterfully fleshed out the emotional drivers of the characters. His theme for Count Zaroff was brilliant in its conception, and offered an elegant valzer malinconico, which outwardly speaks to his aristocratic bearing and cultured sophistication. Yet the theme was quite malleable, and when used to support his psyche’s shadow, its articulation mutates into a malevolent hunting anthem. Its juxtaposition to Robert’s and Eve’s themes and inspired interplay created the necessary tension to enhance the drama unfolding on the screen. But what truly elevates this film and drives its narrative is Steiner’s astounding action writing during the chase scenes as Robert and Eve are relentlessly hunted by ravenous hounds. These cues offer a tour de force, which achieved a dynamic synergy with the film’s narrative, propelling the hunt with desperation, terror and ferocity. I believe this to be one of Steiner’s finest early opus scores, and a classic from the dawn of the Golden Age. I highly recommend you purchase this quality album for your collection. Lastly, I commend the creative team of John W. Morgan and William Stromberg for their ongoing efforts to restore the lost treasure of classic Golden Age scores. Gentlemen, thank you for all that you do.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the astounding “Chase” track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WybMUU4p-Fo

Buy the Most Dangerous Game soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:34)
  • The Wreck (1:17)
  • The Approach (2:24)
  • Russian Waltz (1:40)
  • Incidental Music (0:46)
  • Agitato (2:23)
  • The Iron Door (2:57)
  • Night (1:04)
  • The Count Approaches (2:20)
  • Misterioso Dramatico (3:57)
  • The Chase (4:43)
  • The Chase Continues (0:55)
  • The Waterfall (2:23)
  • The Fight (1:27)
  • Escape – Finale (2:00)

Running Time: 31 minutes 42 seconds

Naxos Film Music Classics 8-570183 (1932/2006)

Music composed by Max Steiner. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by The Moscow Symphony Orchestra featuring Leonid Makarevich. Original orchestrations by Bernhard Kaun and Emil Gerstenberger. Recorded and mixed by Edvard Shakhnazarian and Vitaly Ivanov. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by John Morgan, William Stromberg and Anna Bonn.

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