Thursday, October 22, 2009

Watch Out for Evil Big Game Hunters

Meet a big game hunter in a work of fiction and they're likely to fall into one of two catagories. Either they're good guys, who stumble across a series of fantastic adventures without even really trying to do so (as Allen Quatermain was wont to do) or get a job leading safaris that go back in time to hunt prehistoric creatures (a job Reginald Rivers was quite good at).

Or they'll be bad guys. In this case, they'll either be madmen who'll hunt you for sport or they'll be top assassins working for a master criminal. In either case, you gotta watch out for them.

If you've never read Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game," (1924) then you should be ashamed of yourself. Click on the link provided and read it right now. It's one of the best adventure stories ever written.

And General Zaroff, the madman who used a remote island has his private arena in which to hunt human beings, is a really creepy and effective villain. His insanity is apparent in the calm, methodical manner in which he takes pleasure in bringing his prey down, but being whacko doesn't affect his skill as a hunter in the least. This makes him the best sort of villain--someone with a definable (albeit nutty) motive who has the chops and skill to get what he wants.

"The Most Dangerous Game" has been adapted to film at least a half-dozen times, but the earliest film version is still the best. It's also the only one to use the original title and (if I can trust the results of the character search I did on the only one in which General Zaroff gets to keep his original name. Which is actually important--it just sort of sounds right.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) was actually filmed simultaneously with the original King Kong, using many of the same cast and crew as well as the Skull Island set standing in for Zaroff's island. It tosses a damsel in distress into the mix, but is otherwise pretty faithful to the original story. Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks, an actor who had been wounded and scarred around the face in the First World War. Banks made a point of highlighting the scarred side of his face whenever he played villains, an effective bit of stage craft that made him particularly memorable in such roles.

Zaroff made a great villain on radio as well. A 1943 episode of Suspense had Orson Welles giving us a melodramatic but still fun interpretation of the role, while a 1947 episode of Escape featured Hans Conried in my personal favorite version of the character. Conried is probably best remembered as a comedic actor, but he could manage to sound pretty darn evil when he put his mind to it.

Of course, when Evil Big Game Hunters aren't hunting you for perverse thrills, they're doing so for money. Colonel Sebastian Moran was the chief assassin of that Napolean of Crime--Professor Moriarty. Moran specialized in using an air gun, allowing him to take out his target without making a lot of noise.

Moran kept at his job even after Moriarty met his doom at Reichenbach Falls, determined to finish off Sherlock Holmes and avenge the professor. But Holmes outwits and catches the assassin in "The Adventure of the Empty House."

Moran is used as the main villain in one of the later Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective. He's played by character actor Alan Mowbray--who, like Leslie Banks--had served Britain with distinction during the First World War.

Terror by Night (1946) incorporates elements from several of the original Holmes stories and turns out to be a minor but still enjoyable entry in the Great Detective's film canon. Moran adds poison darts to his arsenal of death for this particular outing.

But whether they are using traditional rifles, custom-made air guns or poison darts, Evil Big Game Hunters are bad news. Avoid them at all costs. Warn your children against them. And, above all else, don't get lost at sea only to wash up on General Zaroff's island.

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