Sunday, 26 June 2011

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney          
              Lionel Barrymore
              Mary Nolan
              Warner Baxter
Run time: 65 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

West of Zanzibar was the penultimate collaboration between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney (the following year's Where East is East was the last) and explores familiar territory, with Chaney cast as yet another down-at-heel showman grievously wronged in love and out for revenge. But whereas 1927's The Unknown, morbid though it is, had an almost fairy-tale quality to it (owing to its circus setting and central love story) West of Zanzibar has no such redeeming feature; it’s a nasty, grubby little film, and quite possibly the most morally depraved of its era. That sounds as if I’m getting ready to knock it, but nothing could be further from the truth: although critical opinion generally favours The Unknown, I actually prefer West of Zanzibar. Indeed, it's one of my favourite films from the 1920s.

Browning wastes no time in laying his cards on the table: the film begins with a quote from the Anglican burial service - “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – before cutting to a shot of a bleached skeleton propped in an upright coffin. Having symbolically established that death is going to be a prominent feature of the film, Browning then reveals that the coffin is part of a cheap trick being performed by a downmarket stage magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney), in which the skeleton is transformed into the beautiful form of Phroso’s wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden).

Anna, we quickly learn, is a very unhappy woman. Leered at by the unsavoury-looking audience, she smiles and goes through the motions of putting on a show; but behind the scenes she is wracked by guilt and self-doubt as she contemplates leaving her husband and running away to Africa with a businessman named Crane (Lionel Barrymore) who is hoping to establish himself in the Congo region as an ivory merchant. We are given to distrust Crane from the start: when we first meet him he is lurking in the corner behind the dressing room door, waiting like some predatory animal for Anna's return. Realising that Anna's guilt is preventing her from telling Phroso about their affair, Crane offers to do the job for her and confronts Phroso in the theatre flies. As might be expected, Phroso is devastated on hearing the news, and the situation is only made worse by Crane's manifest delight at the sight of the magician's heartbreak and despair. Since there is no evidence of any history between the two men, or that Phroso has ever treated Anna badly, one can only assume that Crane's unfeeling behaviour stems from him simply being a sadistic bastard rather than from anything Phroso might have done to deserve such cruelty. Unfortunately, the confrontation turns physical and ends with Phroso falling from the balcony and breaking his spine on the stage below.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Bat (1926)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Jewel Carmen
               Jack Pickford
               Emily Fitzroy
               Tullio Carminali
Run time: 88 mins
Studio: United Artists
Black & White

Whoops. My plan to review the horror films of the 1920s in chronological order has come unstuck. Somehow I managed to forget about The Bat, even while I was writing my review of West's The Monster (1925). It was only while searching for the next film to review (another Lon Chaney) that I discovered the The Bat wedged between Roger Corman's The Terror and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (I really need to organise my DVDs better!). As I fed the disc into the player I did worry that maybe I'd forgotten about The Bat because I didn't like it or because it wasn't very good; but happily I can report that although my personal preference is for The Monster, The Bat is in fact a better film and further proof that West deserves to be better remembered than he is.

The Bat is yet another old dark house thriller based on yet another successful Broadway stage play (although, in fact, it began life as a novel) and, like The Monster, its storyline has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese; but West's frenetic direction doesn't allow us much time to ponder them - as with The Monster, the action in The Bat moves at a furious pace. Characters don't just creep around the old dark houses in West's films - they race through them, run up and down the stairs, leap over furniture, and swing through windows. The Bat is essentially a farce, characterized as it is by an elaborate and improbable plot, multiple chase scenes, and a generous helping of verbal and physical humour.

The Bat of the title is a master criminal (and, incidentally, an acknowledged inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman) who has been running rings around the police for some time. Something of a celebrity, whose escapades are reported regularly in the papers, the Bat is famous for the sinister costume he wears to mask his real identity. Though he is known primarily as a thief, the Bat has a darker side to his nature, as revealed in the opening scene in which he breaks into the penthouse of a jewel collector named Gideon Bell (George Beranger) and murders him for the sake of stealing just one of the "fabulous Favre emeralds" (in fairness to the Bat, however, it should be noted that he does give Bell advance warning of his intention to rob him, so maybe Bell should have heeded the warning and cleared out of the apartment instead of waiting with a gun to catch the thief in the act). Escaping through the window and across the rooftops, the Bat leaves behind a bat-shaped calling card informing the police that he is going to take a short break in the countryside.

This trip to the countryside turns out to be a trip to Oakdale County, where it transpires that the Bat intends to rob the county bank. Unfortunately, however, someone has beaten him to it. As the Bat watches through the skylight, a mysterious Man in a Black Mask (Charles Hertzinger) opens the safe and removes a large sum of money. Scurrying away from the bank with the cash in a bag, the Man in the Black Mask gets into a car and speeds off into the night. Disconcerted and annoyed, the Bat decides to follow in his own prototype batmobile. The Man in the Black Mask leads him to a lonely, moonlit mansion built and designed, we are told, by a certain Courtleigh Fleming, recently deceased president of the Oakdale Bank. The Bat watches from the trees as the Man in the Black Mask breaks into the house through a basement window.