Surreal Wonder: ‘The Most Dangerous Game’

Thanks to the wonders of Blu-ray, the past couple of years have provided film buffs with some bona fide treasures, restored to the point where the films look more pristine and beautiful than when they were released. However, these high definition restorations do more than highlight the gorgeousness of classic cinema, they also give it an extra something, because more often than not, the movies achieve a dreamlike quality.

Watching the godlike, beautiful actors move across our home screens enhances the idea of what movies were supposed to be about; transporting experiences that removed us, for a time, from our world. When watching these films there’s also a sense of eerie familiarity, not only because black and white has the tendency to confuse our senses at first, but also because you might get the feeling that you have seen parts of these movies before. Maybe growing up, going to a double feature with your grandparents, or somewhere else, perhaps on the back projections of a hipster band, or watching a local network on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Such is the feeling one gets when watching The Most Dangerous Game, this pre-Code gem created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the team behind the iconic King Kong (which was shot simultaneously), contains moments of such surreal wonder that even if you’ve seen it before, you’ll find yourself wondering whether you dreamt the movie.

Based on a short story by Richard Connell, the film begins with a shipwreck from which only renowned hunter Bob Gainesford (Joel McCrea) survives. He arrives to a mysterious island where he seeks refuge in the fortress-like home of the extravagant Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks in his screen debut). There it seems that time has all but stopped, as Zaroff welcomes him without really making a fuss about the fact that he just survived a shipwreck. Little does Bob know that this suave, charming man is much more than a welcoming host, he has also developed a taste for hunting the ultimate prey: men.

Connell’s story has been put on screen on several occasions, but no version has been as chilling as this studio production. Shot in the same sound stages where King Kong was made, sometimes we are led to think that within this fictitious universe both stories might’ve been occurring at the same time, and while Bob was running away from the murderous Zaroff, there was a giant ape atop the Empire State building. From a sociological point of view, both movies say a lot about the way in which America developed in the decades between the two world wars. Both movies display an undeniable amount of xenophobia (we can also include Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls in this category) and we find ourselves before a fascinating dichotomy, for all these movies are essentially repelled and seduced by the mysteries of what lies beyond the homeland.

The stylized cinematography and affected performances by McCrea and Fay Wray, as a lazy love interest, give away the film’s era, but Leslie Banks’ cruel, calculated performance seems to have sprung from a modern nightmare. The stylization and obvious studio-ness of The Most Dangerous Game makes for an interesting contrast to Gow, the Headhunter, which wasn’t directed by Cooper or Shoedsack — they were cameramen — but still remains an essential part of their filmography because it announced what would define their most iconic movies. Gow, the Headhunter seems to promise the gravitas of a Flaherty documentary but it resembles Murnau’s Taboo instead, as it uses archival footage to create a wildly exploitative narrative.

Not much “head hunting” goes on at any moment in the film, but through ominous narration and unintentionally funny title cards, we are told how the South Pacific tribes captured on film are nothing if not some of the most dangerous people on Earth. What we see instead is a group of natives completely oblivious to a camera, living their lives as usual.

The film puts together several stories and upon its release must’ve been popular because it exposed cultural practices most people would’ve assumed were extinct. It can’t help but be joyful for its curious exploitation devices, see for example how the camera lingers just a minute too long on scenes featuring bare breasted women and how quickly it becomes a “sex and violence” picture, a reminder that there are some social practices in Western civilization that truly ring of primitive behavior.

The film lovers at Flicker Alley continue delivering magnificent work in terms of preservation and restoration. The Most Dangerous Game looks absolutely ravishing and despite a few scratches that must’ve been impossible to remove, everything else looks astounding. Gow, the Headhunter similarly looks great, even if the footage itself wasn’t very high quality to begin with. The Blu-ray set also includes an informative booklet and audio commentary from Rick Jewell and Matthew Spriggs.

RATING 8 / 10