A sort of b-side to the subsequent year’s King Kong (the 1933 original), shot on the same sets with some of the same actors around the same time, The Most Dangerous Game isn’t only a study in film-production ingenuity. It’s also a rousing adventure picture and a fine example of a literary adaptation that opens up into a fresh cinematic world.
Richard Connell’s perpetually popular short story offers up an irresistible piece of source material, and directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper make good on the potential, delivering an exciting piece of pre-code entertainment that clocks in at just over an hour.
Neatly divided into two sections, the film first introduces us to Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a famous and accomplished big game hunter whose luxury vessel crashes in the middle of nowhere. After swimming to safety to a nearby island, he discovers it’s inhabited by an eccentric Russian count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a deliciously scenery-chewing turn). Rainsford also finds that his ship isn’t the only recent crash — among the others marooned are the elegant Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her obnoxious alcoholic brother Martin (Robert Armstrong).
Zaroff posits himself as a big game hunter like Rainsford, but a few disappearing sailors later, and it begins to become clear that Zaroff hasn’t been completely honest. Bored with the too-easy-to-kill prey of various exotic animals, the count has turned to hunting humans, and he’s got a grotesque trophy room to prove it.
While the first half of the film is occupied by occasionally stilted exposition and some overt philosophizing on what it means to be a hunter, the second half is pure adventure as Rainsford and Eve are plunged into the jungle surrounding Zaroff’s estate with the hunter closing in behind. The impressive King Kong sets, several stunning matte paintings and lean, focused direction make for a wholly engrossing half-hour.
Flicker Alley’s superb package also includes Gow the Headhunter, a fascinating anthropological study/exploitation piece that received a number of re-releases over the decades. Both Schoedsack and Cooper worked as cinematographers on the production and Gow’s visual influence can certainly be seen on their later work.
Originally released as a more serious documentary about the voyages of Captain Edward A. Salisbury to the South Seas Islands, the film was retrofitted with cringe-inducing commentary for a 1931 re-release, and it’s that version that’s presented here. William Peck’s stunningly wrongheaded narration attempts to create a palpable sense of danger through rampant racism and xenophobia, which makes the whole thing an interesting anthropological study of a different kind, I guess. The footage itself is engaging enough on its own as it captures the rituals, dances and violence of tribes of cannibals and headhunters.
The Blu-ray Disc
Both films are granted 1080p high definition, 1.33:1 transfers, sourced from 35mm fine grain master positives. The Most Dangerous Game, which has languished in the public domain for some time, gets a strong upgrade here over the previous best version, Criterion’s 2001 DVD. Flicker Alley’s transfer is thoroughly film-like — a beautiful, silvery image with unadulterated grain structure. Scratches and other damage are fairly frequent, but the image presents superb clarity underneath them. Gow features more extensive damage, but it’s also a faithfully film-like presentation and it replicates the experience of viewing the film on celluloid nicely. The audio isn’t lossless for either film, but The Most Dangerous Game sounds pretty nice regardless, with a crispness not present in previous editions.
Both films get a full-length audio commentary — USC film professor Rick Jewell on The Most Dangerous Game and archaeology professor Matthew Spriggs on Gow. A slideshow features audio excerpts of an interview with Merian C. Cooper conducted by film historian Kevin Brownlow. The package also includes a booklet with notes by Cooper on The Most Dangerous Game and an essay on Gow’s exploitation qualities by Eric Schaefer.
The Bottom Line
Offering superb image quality and a slate of proudly academic extras, Flicker Alley proves again it’s one of the most conscientious home video distributors out there with its latest release.