Making his move from editor (Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and The Magnificent Ambersons) to director in the early 1940s, Robert Wise wasted little time jumping into a variety of arguably B-grade pictures (like the Val Lewton sequel The Curse of the Cat People, the Guy de Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi, and back again to Lewton for the marvelous Robert Louis Stevenson tale The Body Snatchers). Wise would officially leave behind the role of editor at long last in 1943 with The Iron Major, directed by Ray Enright, so these early string of features prove to be an interesting part of Wise’s career as he changed professions and begins to explore genre, and eventually film noir, for which he would be well known by the end of the decade. Sandwiched in here is 1945’s A Game of Death, which is perhaps the most unnecessary item in Wise’s illustrious filmography (and certainly, besides 1951’s The Captive City, also the most wearisome), which was the first major remake of the classic Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game, following the 1932 classic by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Shoedsack.
Famed hunter Don Rainsford (John Loder) finds himself unexpectedly shipwrecked on an isolated Caribbean island. He is pleased to find the island is inhabited by a rich big-game hunter, Erich Krieger (Edgar Barrier), who lives alone in his jungle enclosed castle with the mute Carib (Noble Johnson). The island seems to be something of a death trap for seaman, as brother and sister Robert and Ellen Trowbridge (Russell Wade and Audrey Long) were also shipwrecked and have been awaiting a chance to leave the island, as well. As Erich shares foreboding hints about the kind of big game he specializes in hunting, the trio of innocents finds out too late of Krieger’s hand in wrecking their ships so he can acquire humans to hunt down and kill, adding their heads to his secret trophy room.
In the mind’s eye, Wise’s version fails to be anything other than what appears a beat-by-beat remake of the earlier 1932 film, although featuring less persuasive leads and, at nine minutes of additional running time, is less efficiently paced. For proof of the unenthusiastic energy of A Game of Death, look no further than Wise’s nasty 1947 noir Born to Kill, featuring an iconic Lawrence Tierney as one of the genre’s most potent villains to see what he was capable of delivering when invested in the material.
Unfortunately, A Game of Death seems as conscious of its predecessor as most audiences will be who happen upon the film. The most glaring evidence of this is the presence of actor Noble Johnson in both films, whose character gets a name change (Ivan becomes the more exotic Carib, which lends the otherwise lazy moniker, shortening of Caribbean, a Caliban sort of vibe), a man “who has no voice” but yet is indigenous to the island’s particular historical flavorings. As the prolific hunter and protagonist, John Loder (of Meet John Doe) does not compare to the matinee idol looks of a Joel McCrea, while the villainous Edgar Barrier is a bit more wooden and less flamboyant than the mad, murderous hunter played by Leslie Banks before him (also, a character name change from Count Zaroff to Edgar Krieger seems to move the initial Cossack heritage of the hunter to something more German flavored to fit the 1945 period).
Famously, Fay Wray starred as the sole female character, a throwaway damsel in distress who only can seem to get in the way, replaced here by Audrey Long, who would appear in Wise’s Born to Kill, albeit in the less memorable role as Claire Trevor’s socialite sister. The character is a postscript for archaic, misogynist attitudes towards women and their characterization in genre (“one does not kill the female animal,” sneers Krieger when she accompanies Don during his anxious flight). Dated and almost entirely declawed, A Game of Death remains, at best, a curiosity piece for Robert Wise aficionados.
Kino Lorber presents A Game of Death in 1.33:1 as part of its Studio Classics label. Picture and sound quality are serviceable, with most of any notable damage effectively cleared up in this single-layer transfer. DP J. Roy Hunt’s frames are of note (though this has less stylized flourishes than the 1932 film), although his work in other genre titles from the period, including I Walked with a Zombie, and Ernest B. Shoedsack’s 1949 Mighty Joe Young find more pronounced examples of his craftsmanship. Film historian Richard Harland Smith provides audio commentary, but the disc is otherwise without special features.
Despite keeping intact the viciousness of the classist critique in Connell’s original story (Krieger’s shaming of Rainsford’s empathy as “some romantic notions about the value of human life” still lands a punch), A Game of Death is a less enthusiastic carbon copy of a property more effectively adapted in A Most Dangerous Game (1932).