Dec 28, 2010

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Lon Chaney Sr. once again displays his histrionic talents to the screen as a phony magician who becomes crippled due to a scuffle arising from his discovery that his wife is running away with Lionel Barrymore to Africa. Fifteen years later, Chaney leads a motley group of people towards a meticulous revenge plot.

Apparently his wife's extramarital union sired a daughter, whom he had raised in a brothel (!) and has now summoned her to his lair to meet her father. This is an example of how sadistic Chaney's character really is. Plus, he purposely has Barrymore's ivory stolen in order to lure him into his web. Throughout there is a subplot of the natives burning the wife or daughter of any recently deceased man, which foreshadows Chaney's diabolical scheme.

This outrageous melodrama is one solid hour of cruelty. It is held together by Chaney's momentous command of the material. Seeing him twist his body around on the floor is once again another demonstration why he is considered to be the finest actor of the silent screen-- a time when acting meant body language over dialogue, he inhumanly contorted his own body to convey memorable portraits of twisted human beings. Also the drama is strengthened by a striking visual style which emphasizes the savagery. The high-contrast black and white, plus an expert use of lighting makes for a memorable moodpiece of sadism.

This is another of several collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning, some of which are now lost (most famously, their 1927 effort London After Midnight).

(Edited from a review originally included in ESR #9) 


TSMChicago said...

I saw this film on Chicago's PBS outlet, WTTW, during the 1970s. A new score had been added and several scenes were tinted. The new music was fantastic.

There has to be a master of this version of Zanzibar somewhere. It needs to be released by some niche video service or shown on TCM. It is an MGM film and they should have the rights.

MikeyL said...

No shortage of lurid scenes in this movie which is of course in its favor. There can be absolutely no doubt that Chaney was a great artist, this, although entertaining and gleefully sadistic, is nethertheless sensationalist tosh. But I treasure it. I clicked on Mary Nolan's Wikipedia entry and was amazed at what fate had in store for her. An actress I had never heard of. Watched this, and The Unholy Three (25), on Filmstruck's last night. The lights off. Beautiful, strange, moody. I'm going to miss Filmstruck.