A Game of Death (1945)

A Game of Death, RKO’s remake of their 1932 classic The Most Dangerous Game, was one of the earliest of director Robert Wise’s B-movie films. Positively received on release, the film has been mostly forgotten over the years, except by low-budget aficionados and John Loder fans, of which there must be tens, maybe even dozens, including myself.

When the yacht carrying celebrity hunter and memoirist  Don Rainsford (John Loder), along with a sizeable crew and several of his colleagues, crashes on a reef off a deserted tropical island, Rainsford finds himself the only survivor, sharks having made entrees of the rest of the poor souls aboard. Stumbling through the photogenic leafiness, he encounters a large home inhabited by a scrunched-faced mute (Noble Johnson) and his employer, the rich, eccentric and suave Erich Krieger (Edgar Barrier). Krieger is a fan of Rainsford’s and offers him a place to stay, along with two charming guests, Ellen Trowbridge (Audrey Long) and her brother Robert (Russell Wade). But the siblings are also curiously victims of a boat crashing into the reef, and Krieger is unable to send them home due to vague repairs needed by the boat launch.

Then there’s also the little matter of Krieger’s odd behavior, though maybe it’s not so odd, considering he’s a goateed German with a mysterious scar on his head and a psychotic love of hunting. Ellen tries to tell Rainsford that the previous guests have been disappearing one by one, and screams in the night indicate they are killed while on hunting jaunts with Krieger, but Rainsford is kind of a Stump Beefchunk in this version and it doesn’t seem to sink in as quickly as it should. Once it does, well, things get real pretty damn quick.

The biggest problem with using footage from the original is that the original is positively lush with vegetation, while the remake is often shot on the California coastline with a couple of palm fronds jammed into the ground to make it look like a tropical isle. The interiors are gorgeous; my good pal Richard Harland Smith (I lie; I’ve never met him, but I like him lots) has the dope on where a lot of those sets came from in his commentary track.

Though it’s a pretty strict remake of the original, the difference in the leads alone makes a huge difference in the feel of the film. Joel McCrea, the lead in The Most Dangerous Game, always had a bit of the goofball about him, plus he was almost half Loder’s age and significantly less bulky. That bulk makes a difference! A Game of Death is the earliest example I know of where the lead is played by a big, beefy, stoic, decidedly non-intellectual guy who looks exactly like the dudes on the covers of pulp paperbacks. Rex Reason was probably the actor who most purely exemplified this type of character, though Reb Brown comes in a very close second. Loder turns out to be very good at being the beefy B-movie hero, a pleasant surprise after seeing him in films like The Private Life of Henry VIII, Now Voyager and How Green Was My Valley.  He doesn’t have a whole lot of complicated emotions to get in the way.

Above: Johnson, Loder, Gene Stutenroth and Barrier in one of the many pulp paperback poses throughout the film. Noble Johnson appears in two roles in A Game of Death, as Carib as well as in the reused footage from The Most Dangerous Game as the Count’s sidekick Ivan, where he’s sporting one of those hilariously unconvincing beards that were so popular in the silent and pre-Code era.

This isn’t the only time something like this has happened in a remake. Curtis Nero appears in both West of Zanzibar (1928) and its remake Kongo (1932) because Kongo reused the earlier film’s footage. An even wackier example would be Riding High, the 1950 remake of Broadway Bill (1934), both directed by Frank Capra. Reused footage from the earlier film included actors Ward Bond, Clarence Muse, Charles Lane, William Demarest and several others, most of whom were called back in to re-shoot some scenes for the 1950 version, playing the same characters. To say they didn’t look like they had 16 years earlier is a terrible understatement, though it appears Charles Lane could still fit into his old suit.

Robert Wise was just off his Gothic horror The Body Snatcher when he directed A Game of Death, and though a pretty standard remake of the original, one can see the usual Wise touches in the film. Still, Wise excelled at directing more evocative screenplays, and his direction becomes decidedly workmanlike here, as well as in Criminal Court, reviewed here on SBBN previously. Wise recalled that he would sometimes spend months sitting around waiting for work: “That’s why I did films like A Game of Death and Criminal Court. Also, I was still learning. You don’t learn when you’re sitting at home.”

That’s not to say he liked doing the film. As Wes D. Gehring quotes in his book Robert Wise: Shadowlands, Wise once told Billy Wilder, “I’m against remakes in general, because if a picture is good, you shouldn’t remake it, and if it’s lousy, why remake it?”

Still, the film got some solid reviews, my favorite of which was THR who declared that the suspense was so well done “that it would require a moron or a nerveless individual to sit back and relax.” Shadowlands also quotes Variety, who called the film a “chillerdiller,” which is a fantastic word that I shall work into my everyday conversation.

A Game of Death will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber on March 21, 2017, in a newly remastered print. The Blu comes with English subtitles (good ones!), audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith, and trailers for several films.