Most Dangerous Game / Gow the Headhunter [Blu-ray] [Import]
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The Most Dangerous Game and Gow The Headhunter (Cannibal Island) to Blu-ray for the first time in new digital editions produced by film historian David Shepard. The two features on this Blu-ray publication honor the extraordinary lives of filmmaking team Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack as their distant difficult and dangerous productions evolved from pure documentary (Grass) through semi-documentary (Chang) and semi-fiction (The Four Feathers) to their fictional apogee in King Kong
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"The Most Dangerous Game" is obviously the engine pulling this train, and in my opinion, it's one of the outstanding action-adventure films from the early 1930s. Although it is often thought of as a place-holder for "King Kong," having been made on many of the same sets with many of the same cast and crew, it's a very notable achievement on its own. It has been available on a nice DVD from Criterion, as well as on public domain editions usually bootlegged from Criterion's copy; but the beautiful quality of Flicker Alley's Blu-Ray is likely to amaze you. We started with the original 35mm studio fine grain master, and the HD transfer was then restored from the original Radio Pictures tower to the end; not to the point where it no longer looks like it originated on nitrate film, but to the standard of a new 35mm print of the period. The sound was restored at Diapason sound services in Paris, and it came out so beautifully that they now use it as a before-and-after demonstration of what they are able to do. There is a new audio essay by Rick Jewell, author of "RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born" (University of California Press, 2012) which is packed with interesting information delivered in a comfortable, conversational style.
"Gow" is more an oddity than it is a polished film. It's the 1931 synthesis of four silent films based upon footage photographed between 1920 and 1922 in Samoa, Fiji, the Andaman Islands, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides; it was later retitled "Cannibal Island" and distributed as an exploitation film into the 1950s. Although the film was produced by a wealthy adventurer, Captain Salisbury, much of it was photographed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who were responsible for "The Most Dangerous Game" and "King Kong," and before that, for the silent documentary "Grass" and the story/documentary film "Chang." "Gow" is the seed of their filmmaking ethic: distant, difficult, and dangerous. The island people of "King Kong" owe quite a lot to the Melanesians that Cooper and Schoedsack observed with Salisbury. The 1931 version has a cringe-inducing commentary by another member of the Salisbury expedition, that we have offset by a really wonderful audio essay by Matthew Spriggs, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Australia and author of "The Island Melanesians." Spriggs regards "Gow" as a treasure chest of long-gone peoples and practices and in contrast to the patronizing narration of 80+ years ago, he explains what it is we're really seeing. Salisbury's footage was processed in a small laboratory on board his yacht and although our HD transfer is from the original 35mm fine grain master, for the most part the image quality falls short of the best standards even of 1920; so "Gow" hardly benefits from the superior definition of Blu-Ray. Despite its technical deficiencies, it is fascinating; and yes, you really do see cannibals although they are not eating missionaries in these pictures.
THE BLU-RAY TRANSFER: The quality of the picture is stunning -- just beautiful.
THE COMMENTARY: Commentary mostly focuses on the cast and crew and what else they did in their careers. There is very little information about the making of the movie -- such as how and where the sets were constructed etc. The interior of the island mansion is incredible -- but there was no hint as to its origins. I would have liked to know if that set was built just for this movie, or used in other movies, or possibly was a "real" location. And I understand that many of the exterior sets were shared with King Kong -- but where were they? The commentary assumed that I already had some knowledge about the making of both movies, and I do not -- so I deducted one star for that.
If you enjoy films of this genre and era, you cannot go wrong with this Blu-Ray edition of Most Dangerous Game.
* GOW *
This is a collection of films made at different times, shown in documentary format. The footage is interesting and entertaining, although I don't doubt the producers played fast and loose with actual facts. Although there is a lot of teasing that you will see actual cannibals and head-hunters, all gory images are left to your imagination. There is nudity of the sort you might find in National Geographic. There are portions that are highly ethnocentric and racist, as you would expect from something like this.
The film was produced simultaneously with KING KONG, utilizing the same jungle sets and several of the same cast and crew members. Both films were realized by the producer/director team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with Schoedsack and Irving Pichel sharing director credit on GAME. British stage actor Leslie Banks made his screen debut as the insane Count Zaroff, and plays him to the hilt with appropriate relish. Zaroff's prey includes the shipwrecked big game hunter, Bob Rainsford, well played by the underrated Joel McCrea. This was one of McCrea's first important hero roles which became his forte. The "prize" Zaroff hopes to win after the hunt is another shipwreck survivor, Eve Trowbridge, played charmingly by Fay Wray. The lovely actress, best known for her legendary performance in KING KONG, gives THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME something extra Connell's story lacked - sex appeal. This additional element makes Zaroff's distorted obsession with hunting particularly kinky.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is a prime example of economical movie making of the highest calibre. At a brisk 63 minutes, the first two-thirds of the film is build-up to prepare us for the piece de resistance which is the climactic chase, and once it comes it really pays off. The sequence is one of the most thrilling of the early '30's, with Schoedsack's considerable skill at action pacing in full evidence. The use of various camera angles, close-ups, panning, dolly and tracking shots all combine for a breathless run through a fog shrouded swamp, a dense jungle, across chasms, and over a waterfall. But the one who takes center stage during this sequence is the film's composer, Max Steiner. Structured around the call of a hunting horn, the music acts both as narrative that recalls earlier scenes, and as a vibrantly pulsating force that drives the action persistently forward. Indeed, Steiner's expressive, exciting music for THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME already demonstrated the brilliance that was to fully emerge with his score for KING KONG.
While usually thought of as a dry run for Cooper and Schoedsack's tale of the lovestruck giant ape, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME can easily stand on its own merits as a solid, well crafted action/horror/thriller.
GOW, THE HEADHUNTER (1931), is an interesting expeditionary film that was compiled from footage of the South Seas Islands shot in the early '20's. Produced by British adventurer Edward A. Salisbury, the film is noteworthy because Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were among the cameramen. The cannibals they encountered bear certain similarities with Skull Island's natives in KING KONG, right down to the warpaint, costumes, and yes, skulls.
GOW is best known as an exploitation film, since it was re-issued that way in the '50's as CANNIBAL ISLAND with Mondo-style narration that was added in 1931 by William Peck, who was one of the original expedition members. The film is of historical value because it documents the customs and lifestyles of savage, primitive tribes that were beginning to fade off from the world scene.
Flicker Alley has released both THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and GOW, THE HEADHUNTER as a double feature Blu-ray edition. Both films have been transferred off 35mm composite master positives. Of the two, GAME benefits the most from the boost to HD, and it surpasses Criterion's DVD. The image clarity is nothing short of spectacular for a film of this vintage, and the soundtrack is equally impressive, without a trace of hiss and delivering a full bodied sound that does Max Steiner's music score the justice it deserves. One can now hear textures in the music that weren't as clear before, and a better bass response without distortion. Considering the quality of its source, GOW still looks good in HD; there are some light lines and white specks, but these are minor and don't detract at all from the viewing experience.
GAME has an excellent commentary by USC professor and author, Rick Jewell, and GOW has a new audio essay provided by Matthew Spriggs, Professor of Archaeology at the Australian National University. While Spriggs' essay may be considered more "politically correct" than Peck's from 1931, I think his frequent referrals to what he finds offensive in Peck's narration is distracting and unnecessary. In fact, I prefer the '31 voice-over because it's in keeping with the context of the time the movie was made. In addition, part of what makes the film fascinating for me is the fact that someone who was actually on the expedition is relating his first-hand, honest reactions to what he witnessed.
Extra features include a slide show with excerpts from Kevin Brownlow's 1971 interview with Merian C. Cooper, a booklet containing notes by Cooper and an essay by Emerson College professor, Eric Schaefer.
This is yet another outstanding release from Flicker Alley and I gladly give it my highest recommendation.