Saturday, January 4, 2014
A GAME OF DEATH (1945- U.S.)
Amazon Kindle HD. D: Robert Wise. I've been searching for this title ever since learning of its existence in the first edition of Michael Weldon's landmark Psychotronic Encyclopedia. As far as I know, this RKO production was never available on any home video format and never showed up on TV in my neck of the woods. I was excited when a search on Robert Wise films turned this title up on my Amazon Kindle. Without hesitation, I clicked on it and it unspooled in stunning HD instantly! As I expected, this screen version of the classic Richard Connell short story boasts those great, dependable RKO B-movie production values that include first-rate sets, production design and artful, expressionistic lighting. Released the same year as Wise's THE BODY SNATCHER, GAME ultimately comes off as a routine, by-the-numbers retelling. The cast is competent but lackluster, especially the part of Count Zaroff (renamed 'Erich Kreiger' here for no good reason) played by genre vet Edgar Barrier (THE GIANT CLAW). In comparison, Leslie Banks played the part so delightfully over-the-top in the original RKO version.
John Loder is the shipwrecked hunter/author Rainsford who washes up on the island shores and meets his icy host, Herr Kreiger, a proud big game hunter and fan of the author's work. There are two like-wise stranded 'houseguests'- a brother (Russell Wade of THE BODY SNATCHER) and sister (Audrey Long of Wise's BORN TO KILL)y reprising the parts played by KONG's Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray. (According to Psychotronic, Fay's screams were looped into this remake!) The trio soon learn about Kreiger's favorite prey and plot to escape. When their plans are discovered, the human safari begins! Krieger has two thug assistants, one of them is played by the great Noble Johnson (KING KONG) who played Zaroff's right-hand, bearded thug in the 1933 version. What's really odd but cool is that Johnson actually plays both parts simulataneously via the use of stock footage so he actually gets two death scenes as two different characters in this film! The rest of the cast is filled out nicely with RKO regulars Jason Robards Sr., Russell Hicks and Robert Clarke (HIDEOUS SUN DEMON, BEDLAM), glimpsed for about a second.
Although GAME delivers less in every department compared to the original, there is one excellent scene that surpasses the same scene in the original- the human trophy room! In this version, Wise really delivers and we get a good look at Krieger's collection of mounted heads and a grisly decapitated relic floating in a tank. The same shots were censored in the 1933 version when the code was instituted and only reinstated much later. Also sadly missing here is the original's elaborate Kong Island painted glass mattes and the great Max Steiner score. Overall, A GAME OF DEATH is a sturdy RKO programmer and it's great to have it finally available! The streaming HD version looks exceptionally sharp, glossy and nicely restored. Paramount is listed as the title's controlling studio so this might explain why this RKO title has never turned up on the Turner channels?