It's been a real pleasure to see several Tod Browning silent films in recent months. One of that rare breed of director to make great films in both the silent and sound eras, Browning's silents are so perverse, funny, modern, and visual, so present, that I don't miss the dialogue. I don't feel like I'm taking a history lesson or looking at something archaic or outside my experience. Browning's silents float outside of time.
The Unknown packs a whole lot of weirdness, action, and beauty into its short 63 minutes, and Browning fills the film with great, memorable faces. Like a lot of Browning films, the principal characters are carnival performers and/or criminals, and there is much unrequited love, disguising of identities, outlandish schemes, and wonderful little details that great directors sprinkle throughout their work.
The film opens with a performance by the traveling carnival, owned and operated by the brutal Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). A man with no arms, Alonzo (Lon Chaney), assisted by little person Cojo (John George), uses his feet to light and smoke cigarettes, remove his cape, and throw knives at a lovely young woman, Zanzi's daughter Nanon (an early role for then-22-year-old Joan Crawford). Following this act, the strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) comes out and lifts heavy weights and bends unbendable objects.
Both Alonzo and Malabar are in love with Nanon, but Malabar comes on too strong and alienates Nanon, much to Alonzo's delight. Nanon hates being touched by men, to the point of terror, so the only man she trusts is the armless Alonzo. The film implies that Zanzi has been sexually molesting Nanon, leading to her fear. (Kudos to my wife for pointing this out. It sailed right over my dim head.) Nanon gives an impassioned speech about how men have been putting their hands on her for her entire life, and Zanzi goes into a rage when he finds out Nanon has been spending time with Alonzo, whipping the armless man and verbally berating him. How did I miss that?
We soon learn that Alonzo is not the kindhearted fellow we think he is, and Malabar is a more sensitive guy than he first appeared. Alonzo has been using a corset to pretend he has no arms in order to avoid the police. He and Cojo are responsible for a string of robberies, and it is also implied that Alonzo has some murders in his past. The elaborate ruse is a clever one, for Alonzo has two thumbs on his left hand. He becomes obsessed with possessing Nanon, and his evil plans become even more evil when Nanon begins working through her fears and growing closer to Malabar, who begins to understand the source of her fear and drops the overbearing approach. Wild and crazy events ensue, including murder, blackmail, bizarre surgery, wild horses, and treadmills.
Every one of these characters is more fascinating than the stereotypes they would have been in a lesser filmmaker's movie. Browning spent years working in carnivals, circuses, and the theater before his film career, and he always presents these characters as multidimensional people. Cojo's height is never used as a gimmick or a plot point, and it's his facial expressions and opinions that are Browning's focus in his scenes.
If you only know Joan Crawford as the tough older woman from baroque horror and melodrama, her status as a gay icon, or Faye Dunaway's delightfully cartoonish performance in Mommie Dearest, you'll get a whole new aspect of her here. It's such a treat to see her before she became a movie star and cultural symbol, though her charisma and screen presence are already fully in place. No wonder everyone in this film falls in love with her. She has a great screen rapport with Lon Chaney, too, who I've already written about many, many times on this site. He is, as usual, awesome. I love this movie.
The Black Cat, a very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, is a bit subdued by Lucio Fulci's standards, especially compared to the films on either side of it (The Beyond and Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead). This is a guy who included a scene of a zombie fighting a shark in Zombie. Still, it's got plenty of inspired lunacy and narrative incoherence, a pretty sick black cat with supernatural powers, and Patrick Magee and his incredible eyebrows and patented Patrick Magee intensity. It's pretty minor Fulci, but I had a good time watching it, and so did one of my cats.
The Black Cat takes place in a small village in England, but a lot of the interior scenes were shot in Italy. The cast includes veteran theater actor and supporting player in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon Patrick Magee in one of his last roles before his death in 1982, Mimsy Farmer, and Fulci regular David Warbeck. Magee plays retired professor Robert Miles, the town eccentric who keeps trying to communicate with the dead and who has an antagonistic relationship with his pet black cat. Farmer plays Jill Trevers, an American photographer taking pictures in the village who develops a fascination with Miles. When a young couple mysteriously disappears, the town police sergeant Wilson (Al Cliver) sends for help from Scotland Yard, which arrives in the delightfully campy form of Inspector Gorley (Warbeck).
Gorley stays on when the couple turns up dead under bizarre circumstances, the second and third victims in what soon becomes a string of freak accidental deaths. They were preceded in death by a man who drove his car at full speed into a parked car, and the body count just keeps increasing. Miles and Trevers both know the deaths aren't accidents but instead the work of Miles' black cat, which may be acting under the influence of psychic human impulses. But why is the cat causing these deaths, and how is it capable of human intent? And how can Trevers convince the detectives without sounding insane?
Meanwhile, Miles is clearly hiding something, and the antagonistic relationship between him and his cat culminates in a hilariously nutty scene where he actually hangs the cat from a tree with a tiny kitty noose. Too bad for him this cat is unkillable, baby! Shortly afterwards, Trevers experiences a poltergeist-style window explosion in her bedroom for reasons never explained. In the next scene taking place in her room, the damage appears to have been repaired completely. I don't understand, but I love it.
This is all pretty silly stuff, but Fulci commits completely. I especially loved the closeups of Magee and his amazing eyebrows as he makes deadly serious pronouncements like, "Cats take orders from no one!" Ain't that the truth, buddy. There are lots of cool shots of the cat scratching the ever-loving hell out of people, some pretty sweet cat's-eye-view camera movements, and lots of atmospheric fog. Warbeck is also pretty funny as the frequently drunk and campily macho Scotland Yard inspector. (I also got to say things like, "Now he's the inspector from Scotland Hard" when he kisses Trevers and "Now he's the inspector from Clawtland Yard" when the cat scratches him. I have good times.) The Black Cat isn't a lost gem or one of Fulci's best, but it's a solidly enjoyable, delightfully goofy, and unusual horror film.
By the way, my tortoiseshell cat Fern went apeshit over the film's first 15 minutes. She was completely riveted by the scenes of the black cat scampering across the village's rooftops, and I was momentarily worried she would try to attack the screen, but she held it together. My wife and I watched the cat documentary The Lion in Your Living Room last weekend, and Fern's response was similar. We've unwittingly set a precedent for supplying her with cat-based entertainment every Friday night. Happy New Year, everyone. If we survive what is certain to be the destructive and incompetent presidency of the orange-sociopath-in-chief, I will continue to write these posts. Thanks for reading.
Dr. Mystery, aka Robot X, aka Raul "Sous Chef" Mendoza, aka Josh Krauter was killed in a brawl in a Pizza Hut parking lot after expressing his disappointment with the "Dippin' Strips" pizza. His skeleton was saved and inserted into an apesuit-wearing robot powered by an electrical current emanating from the still-beating heart of deceased actor Zero Mostel. He is also a limited liability company and writes the weekly advice column, "Pull Your Head Outta Your Ass," for the Vermont Luthiers Annual Newsletter.