The Most Dangerous Signifier

In “The Film-Work, 2,” Thierry Kuntzel analyzes Pichel and Shoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game in excruciating detail, closely reading the text of the film along the lines of the process of dream analysis spelled out in Freud’s On Dreams and The Interpretation of Dreams. Kuntzel’s reading turns largely around the axes of overdetermination: many key events in the plot are overdetermined by their narrative repetition and/or allusions to them that precede or follow the events themselves. This overdetermination is in contrast to a certain underdetermination, that of the film’s opening image of the door-knocker as well as that of the signifier “game.” The necessity of probing this underdetermined signifier is insisted upon by the very title of the film: “The title thus superlativizes (The Most) something that is both risky (Dangerous) and ill-defined (Game), something unnameable. And this opens a disturbing hermeneutic: what (or who) is the most dangerous?” (Kuntzel 18) The signifier “game” is tied to the image of the door-knocker not only by the fact that the title of the film appears over this image, but also by the fact that the knocker and the word overlap in their polysemy, the idea of “game” manifesting itself in the image at least in its cynegetic and sexual interpretations. More importantly, the ideas are linked by the very fact of their polysemy; they operate as the shared site of a problematic of ambiguity, of compositeness, that the film will probe and ultimately dispel: “The whole itinerary of The Most Dangerous Game serves to render the initial figure legible; to progressively reassure the subject plunged ex abrupto into the uncertainty of this first image.” (Kuntzel 24)

The narrative of The Most Dangerous Game thus serves to purge itself of this threat of the composite, the polysemous, by dispelling the figures within the film who serve as its incarnations. Chief among them is, of course, Ivan, whose physical resemblance to the centaur figure is self-evident; but more interesting is the case of Zaroff, whose animalistic qualities are far less foregrounded – if anything, he is “civilized” to a forceful extent, particularly in contrast to the likes of Martin. Zaroff is nonetheless hybrid (if anything, more so than Ivan) insofar as he has one foot so far in the realm of civilization while still advocating against its tenets. This is perhaps most prominent in his ambiguous Scot-Slavic accent, and the heritage of unplaceable Otherness which it suggests. Zaroff – not unlike Kurtz – figures the savagery of civilization itself, operating in a different (more dangerous) paradigm than that of Ivan, who is more easily located alongside Zaroff’s other beasts and minions. What Kuntzel does not explicitly state in his essay is that the imperative of The Most Dangerous Game is not to subvert a paradigm of multiplicity created by the text but to disavow the multiplicity that characterizes the social order by creating – and promptly expunging – a figure constructed as the embodiment of this multiplicity.

The parallels to Apocalypse Now thus abound: both films construct an obscene hybrid figure who highlights the fundamentally savage nature of civilization, and situate the viewer such that they identify with the comparatively neutral (and thus comparatively coherent) protagonist charged with the task of terminating this figure with extreme prejudice in order to reassert an ostensibly coherent paradigm. However, both texts are also marked by a troubling of the coherence of the paradigm that they seek to reassert insofar as their protagonists are made to resemble the obscene figures they’re charged with eliminating, precisely because the process of this elimination is itself murderous. Nowhere is the resemblance clearer than in the two films’ closing scenes: having cast out the obscene figure, the two protagonists take to boats (the same vehicles by which they arrived), presumably now free to return to the land of coherence, a space which, pointedly, neither film portrays. The difference lies in that The Most Dangerous Game makes a great effort to close its narrative – Kuntzel writes about the extensive use of doors opening and closing, bookending the film and thus turning cyclical volumen into linear codex (11) – while Apocalpyse Now thematizes the cyclicality of its own narrative. To whatever extent that The Most Dangerous Game succeeds in assuring the viewer of its hermetic nature, it thus more successfully reasserts the dominant, coherent, western paradigm of civilization that Rainsford defends. But Apocalypse Now displays a knowledge of that which The Most Dangerous Game disavows: that this heterogeneity already characterizes the idea of civilization, born out of the primal parricide and thus always-already infected with violence and ambivalence. Zaroff’s danger consists only in the fact that he is aware of this heterogeneity, that he does not seek to purge it from the idea of civilization but rather understands it as its founding principle.

Apocalypse Now

The Most Dangerous Game