Saturday, April 8, 2017
An intriguingly oddball blaxploitation film, The Black Gestapo is more successful in concept than execution. The plot is pretty unusual. Set in Watts, the film is about The People's Army, a black power community activist organization that models itself after the military and has its own hospital. Tension exists between the group's leaders, Gen. Ahmed (Rod Perry), who wants to work within the system and avoid violence, and Col. Kojah (Night Court's Charles Robinson), who sees the need for direct revolutionary action, including violence if necessary. When some white gangsters start leaning too hard on black businesses and selling dope in the neighborhood, and a couple of their goons rape a black nurse, Ahmed gives Kojah the go-ahead to organize a small group to run the gangsters out of town. Kojah succeeds but turns mad with power, becoming a gangster and drug lord himself, and the stage is set for a People's Army civil war. As a historical curiosity, the film is fascinating, but the directing and acting are pretty amateurish, and the director spends too much time dwelling on sexual violence against women in ways that let you know he's getting off on it at the same time that his story is condemning it. That director, Lee Frost, had a lengthy career in exploitation, and his two best-known films are probably The Thing with Two Heads, starring Rosey Grier and Ray Milland, and moonshiner revenge Southernsploitation, Dixie Dynamite, starring Warren Oates.
The mid- to late-1920s was a golden age of silent film, when poetic vision, technology, and technique had advanced together, and visually stunning masterpieces were numerous, before early sound made things clunky, stagy, and awkward again for a few years. The Man Who Laughs is one of these masterpieces. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, The Man Who Laughs combines elements of horror, comedy, romance, tragedy, swashbuckling adventure, historical costume drama, German expressionist influence, and the sad clown and life of the traveling performer stories to create a thrilling classic Hollywood entertainment. I saw this years ago and admired it without loving it. I don't think I was in the mood for a silent film then, because this second viewing really bowled me over. It's a gorgeously composed movie, full of great images and scenes (director Leni also made Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary), and producer Carl Laemmle's goal of making a film that blended the tones of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was mostly achieved, though all three of those films stand on their own. Besides the composition, this is also a film of great movie faces, particularly Conrad Veidt's in the title role.