Based on the prize winning short story by Richard Connell, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO, 1932) is about a mad, Russian aristocrat who hunts humans on his remote island. Though the basic premise has been filmed many times, this faithful, first version is still considered the best.
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.