When I read in an episode guide that this episode was based (loosely--oh, yes, very) on the famous American short story "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, I was delighted. I had visions of an intense game of cat-and-mouse played out against a gorgeous Western background. Well, the background was there, but as for the rest....
The opening is outstandingly silly. Paladin's in his suite, seated at a harpsichord (which we've never seen in there before, and, I suspect, never will again) attempting to compose a concerto. I found this totally implausible. I suppose they were looking for another way to demonstrate Paladin's incredible range of interests, but this just doesn't work for me. Anyone interested in composing music would have to have a strong interest in music. We've seen Paladin play the piano just once. He's attended various operas, but those are theatrical performances as well as musical, and we've seldom, if ever, heard of Paladin attending a straight concert, or an afternoon of chamber music, or anything like that. And Paladin's conceited remarks about his opus just didn't sound like him. I wouldn't have minded seeing him just playing the harpsichord (perhaps for a young lady) or another variation on the chess theme, but this left me cold.
Vanessa Stuart, widow of a friend or acquaintance of Paladin's (we don't get any details) is having her inheiritance usurped by someone. Paladin immediately travels to Oregon to help her out, but he's curious as to how she knew of him. (If he knew her husband, why wouldn't he assume that she learned of him from her spouse?) A "very nice man" named Radachev had told her of Paladin. Boris Kostnov Radachev. The cosmopolitan Paladin is, of course, aware that Prince Boris is eighth in line for the Russian throne. Paladin seems certain that something is off kilter here, but he lets it ride. He asks Mrs. Stuart to take him to her "timberline", but no one seems surprised when the path leads to a camp presided over by Radachev.
Radachev is delighted to meet Paladin, whom he knows by reputation. Although courteous to Vanessa Stuart, he is not so pleased to see her, although how Paladin was expected to get anywhere without directions doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He entertains them with a lavish meal, waited on by his big, silent manservant Niki. (Once I realized that he was one of the Mitchum men, I could recognize the look, although he was apparently content to stay in character roles.) They then get down to business. Radachev, himself, is the outsider who purchased Mrs. Stuart's mortgage and threatened to foreclose on it. Now that Paladin has arrived, Radachev casually tosses the mortgage in the fire. It was only a ploy to get Paladin there. Radachev is an experienced hunter and soldier, and while he claims to be a brave man, he is actually just addicted to danger. Having grown bored with his usual prey, like the antagonist in "The Most Dangerous Game", he has decided to hunt something more challenging. He has studied American gunfighters and Paladin in particular, enough to know that Paladin would not simply take his challenge and would have to be tricked into the game. They will hunt each other, and if Paladin wins, he will receive five thousand dollars. There's no mention of this hunt being to the death, that seems to be a given. At this point, Radachev describes them both as hunters, but it will quickly be taken for granted that he is the hunter and Paladin the prey. Mrs. Stuart, given her choice of accompanying either man, opts to ride straight for the authorities. Rather than taking her hostage, Radachev simply comments that if she proves a burden to him, he will simply shoot her. Paladin quickly makes it clear that she will accompany him--obviously he believed that Radachev would kill her if she tried to go off on her own. Radachev outrageously suggests that Paladin should siimply shoot her, too.
And the boredom begins. They don't hasten to outdistance Radachev, they make no attempt to double back or hide their trail. They simply amble along, and Radachev ambles behind. Casually spotting him at one point, Paladin makes a sarcastic and uncalled for comment aimed at Mrs. Stuart. How was she supposed to know what Radachev was? Presumably he was quite charming and friendly while baiting his trap. They travel some more, Radachev follows some more. Paladin and Mrs. Stuart come across three cavalry men, and try to enlist their aid, stating that they're being hunted by a madman, which is quite true. The commanding officer was given the thankless "stupid cop" role that used to be popular in fiction, although Paladin isn't much better, here. He makes no attempt to explain precisely why Radachev is hunting him. Radachev comes riding up, following them just as Paladin had said, but he denies hunting them. He's a "naturalist" hunting insects and birds. The officer ignores the fact that two people have made the accusation. Radachev has a properly authorized passport, which apparently places him above suspicion. He also ignores the fact that when Paladin speaks with Radachev, Radachev makes a couple of comments that would make it plain to anyone else that Paladin was right. The officer tells them to get on their way and stop following Radachev, and Paladin doesn't bother pointing out that Radachev was following them. Presumably it was his exasperation at the man's stupidity that kept him from asking that they escort Mrs. Stuart back to her home, which would have given him a much freer hand. (The episode could have really taken off at this point.) Radachev has his rifle out before the cavalry men are well past, but of course they don't think to look back.
And they keep ambling along. Paladin's not even glancing around as they go, so of course he doesn't spot Radachev's dog, lying in wait on the rocky wall alongside their trail. The dog doesn't attack Paladin, however--he jumps Mrs. Stuart. This part was almost completely unbelievable. Mrs. Stuart gets hit from above by a heavy canine, knocked off her horse, breaks her ankle, fights desperately to keep the dog's jaws from her throat--and she doesn't make one single sound. I defy anyone aside from a complete mute to undergo that experience without letting out a little yelp, at the very least. I might think that they forgot to dub in the sound effects at this point, but we can sure hear the dog. Paladin, of course, quickly dispatches the dog, and jumps to the aid of the dazed woman. Radachev calls out approvingly. Paladin is a worthy opponent. Paladin suggests that by now Radachev should see that Paladin isn't someone to mess with, but Radachev ignores this. He puts aside his chance to kill Paladin here, as Paladin perhaps didn't realize that he couldn't escape the game. (Paladin could have pointed out that it's more challenging to catch your prey alive, not to mention the lack of challenge in gunning down someone from a distance.) Paladin finally accepts the challenge, but they will both be hunters--which is what Radachev stated originally.
Mrs. Stuart, not showing much reaction (well, after that silent battle with the dog, I suppose it's not surprising) mentions that her ankle is broken. Paladin splints it for her, and they go on their way. I've never (so far) had the misfortune of a broken bone, but I can't imagine that bouncing along over rough terrain is going to be a pain-free exercize, but Mrs. Stuart still doesn't react. And Paladin is still not acting like hunter or hunted. Just amblin' along. They stop by a river--without bothering to reconnoiter--and Paladin has Mrs. Stuart dunk her sore foot in the water a while. Then they head off again. Up to this point, Paladin has always been in the lead, and he will quickly go back to being in the lead. For this particular moment, however, he's in the rear, giving Radachev the perfect opportunity to shoot at him. Radachev calls out a warning (I guess to be "sporting") and Paladin instantly whips around and shoots. Radachev gets a shot off, and Paladin falls. This part was ridiculous. Paladin very distinctly reacted to the strike of a bullet, yet a moment later he springs up and there is not a mark on him. (Of course, they often didn't show holes or even blood.) This could be put down to adrenalin, and be quite realistic, but from here to the end of the episode, we will not see the slightest indication of a wound. Even a graze would have been enough to knock Paladin off balance, but we don't even see that. Paladin takes only a few moments to search for Radachev--who is lying still and plainly injured. Of course, a wounded animal can still be dangerous, which may be why Paladin didn't try to get closer.
Mrs. Stuart finally starts showing some reaction, looking a little wan and tired. They're still several hours from the nearest town. It's presumably those several hours later when they come up to an outlying farm. An old man rushes out, calling for assistance. This was one of the good points of the show; Hank Patterson always does a good job in whatever role they give him. Paladin has no intention of stopping, but the old man insists that his wife is in labor, and something's wrong. He belatedly adds that she's old for it, which may be the problem. Paladin finally allows himself to be persuaded to help hitch up the wagon. He sends Mrs. Stuart to rest in some shade. Paladin may or may not have had some suspicions, but, not seeing a wagon in the barn, he still stepped forward into the stall, and was confronted by Radachev, clutching his side and his rifle. (I'd like to know how Radachev, mortally wounded, managed to get ahead of them.) He taunts Paladin (it's the rule; you have to taunt your enemy before you kill him). He mentions that Paladin is better than most animals--so which animals provided better sport than Paladin? Paladin, the "sentimentalist" suggests that he needs his wound treated, but Radachev has already accepted that he's going to die. He intends that Paladin will die with him. The result is a foregone conclusion, but I did like how they presented it--an outside view of the barn, with one shot ringing out. Small arms fire, not a rifle. The old man slips out of his house as Paladin exits the barn. Patterson, again, did a great job here, his face twitching with guilt and fear as he faced Paladin. Radachev had told him that he and Paladin had a grudge fight going, and paid the old man forty dollars to set up the trap. The old man is anxious to make clear that he was certain that Paladin would win anyway, the other man being badly wounded. Paladin dryly suggests that he earn his pay by burying the man, and heads back to Mrs. Stuart. Mrs. Stuart, by the way, does not seem to have reacted at all to the unexpected gunshot. As they prepare to move on, Niki stolidly rides up to them, brusquely inquires about his master, hands Paladin an envelope, and moves off. Paladin has his five thousand dollars, plus a brief note from Radachev. The note contains no congratulations, simply an acknowledgement that he, Radachev, is dead. Radachev also seems to think that the afterlife consists of more hunting, and perhaps he and Paladin will meet again. As Niki exits the barn, his master in his arms, they go on their way.
A frustrating episode, because I know they could have made it one of the best. Instead, they settled for "adequate".