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In this early collaboration with director Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks), Chaney delivers a dual performance of dramatic intensity, starring as Ah Wing, a kind-hearted student of Confucian ... See full summary »
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Magician Phroso's wife Anna leaves him for another man, named Crane, who fights with Phroso and leaves him paralyzed. Later Anna returns and he finds her dead, leaving behind a daughter. For 18 years Phroso, known as "Dead Legs" by his cronies, plots his revenge, becoming a pseudo-king in East Africa, nearby where Crane has set up an ivory business. When the daughter is grown, having lived in a brothel in Zanzibar thanks to "Dead Legs", Phroso put his plan into action, resulting in revenge and retribution all around. Written by
Ron Kerrigan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lon Chaney as "Dead-Legs", voodoo tribespeople, Tod Browning... and the downside?
What would appear on the outset to be another insane horror feature along the lines of Freaks (at least from the definitely deceptive publicity picture with Lon Chaney as a chicken or other, which never happens in the film), West of Zanzibar is just another melodrama. Actually, that's a lie. West of Zanzibar is one of the finest examples of the wild, over-the-top melodrama in the silent era. This is a filmmaker who understands what makes a melodrama tick and tickle, and in this film it's about the details of its plot unfolding at a quick clip but with enough characterization to make it never less than fascinating. At worst, it is painfully dated (the stereotypes of tribes people on screen seem a little flagrant), but at best its an example of what could be possible when a director could get his cast to convey all necessary through pantomime and gesture, of grandiosity loaded with little details stitched in there.
It helps that Lon Chaney is starring, however. This is probably what makes it a must-see for me; between just seeing two of his films, this and Phantom of the Opera, he appears to be one of the giants of his time. Maybe even more-so in the case of Zanzibar, one sees Chaney's skills without make-up, with the only gimmick of his "Dead-Legs" not obfuscating what is most interesting about him which is his face and eyes. This man conveys so much without ever, for a second, going too far over the top, at least to how far Browning's melodrama commands. Lionel Barrymore, for the supporting-role time he's on camera, doesn't disappoint either, and character players Mary Nolan and Warner Baxter don't do bad at all, but Chaney just hits it so far out of the park it's without compare in this case.
Playing especially this character, a man with a revenge plot that he has 18 years in the making (sound like that guy in 2009 Star Trek to you?), is a leap of faith, but its one the audience will make since this actor is so determined in this character, invested to the point where we believe how he's a jaded guy, as Doc describes him as despicable and very human at the same time. It's far more complex a character than I would have ever expected going in; the casket he has isn't too shabby, either.
As for Browning fans looking for mood, there's lots of it, especially of the voodoo kind (again, some of it is a little squirm-in-your-seat variety, just in terms of the faces not necessarily the rituals and fire-dances). It's never too laugh-out-loud funny, but it has its moments, like when Maizie's clothes are used for ritual purposes by the tribe-folk. There's also a very sublime touch near the end, perhaps expected in the bittersweet vein but still very satisfying, and I'm sure that was the filmmaker's sensibility all the way. It's a wonderful movie, for fans of the star and director, and if you can see it with a live piano by any chance it's highly recommended.
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