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2 reviews, 1 rating

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West of Zanzibar
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by Jay Seaver

"An impressively gonzo silent thriller."
4 stars

I would normally start a review of a movie like this with "I don't believe in guilty pleasures, this is just entertaining", but this one lends itself more to "pulp fiction can sometimes reflect the less pleasant values of its time." The dirty little secret of movies like that, though, is that they can be nasty, melodramatic, and entertaining with an efficient ruthlessness that modern films would have to really work for.

Still, the owning act doesn't require any political incorrectness to blitz through a lot of setup. In almost no time, stage magician Phroso (Lon Chaney) has not only seen an adventurer by the name of Crane (Lionel Barrymore) steal his wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden) away and push Phroso himself off a ledge while crowing about how he's taking Anna to Africa, but he's been present, paralyzed from the waist down and reduced to begging in the streets, a year later when Asma returns with an infant daughter, expiring just in time for the former magician to see the leading evidence of Anna's adultery and vow revenge. It probably takes up a greater percentage of the film than it might in a contemporary thriller - about fifteen of the movie's sixty-five minutes - but it's admirably relentless in how it starts in a nice place but soon literally brings Phroso's life crashing down before giving it a good, hard twist.

Both as soon as that's done and eighteen years later, it's time for the really nasty stuff to start as a sleeker, meaner Phroso - now called "Dead-Legs" - tricks a primitive tribe of cannibals in the Congo into doing his bidding while blackmailing an alcoholic doctor (Warner Baxter) into looking after his health. While the Africans are stealing ivory from Crane's parties, Dead-Legs sends for Maizie (Mary Nolan), sweet and pure despite being raised in a hotel that is half brothel, so that the final stage of his revenge on them can be put into action.

Making this flavor of pulp during the silent era probably means de-emphasizing the exciting bits of adventure that might make a trip to Africa appealing - no vast horizons filled with unspoiled nature and amazing animals on an MGM shooting stage - but director Tod Browning and the writers make sure to paint it as a place where no white man would come given a choice, an entire continent of criminals and people who have used up their last chances. And that's the white people; the natives are violent and superstitious, easily tricked by a little stage magic and only able to communicate with Dead-Legs and his men in broken English which the titles tender in the most mocking possible way. It's horribly racist, but there can be little denying that Browning and company make the most of it - even the mask that will remind modern audiences of one of the sillier Muppets because Jim Henson found inspiration in peculiar places comes across as creepy, and the final scenes in the camp develop a genuinely paranoid feel as Browning jumps the camera from place to place, overwhelming the audience with the sheer number of malevolent Africans.

As much as the environment is a major part of the film's nastiness, the main driver is Lon Chaney, whose Phroso/Dead-Legs may start out a bit on the likable side - more harmless than anything, the sort of guy a woman feels bad about leaving but does indeed leave - but quickly hardens. There's something fascinatingly paradoxical about Chaney's physical performance; though paralyzed, there's a great deal of physical power to his character, even when he is not pulling or pushing himself across the screen. He's shockingly charismatic for the character who is basically the villain, with Chaney adding the right hint of pathos underneath the rage and cruelty to get the audience to empathize with his evil plan while definitely not sympathizing, especially in moments when Phroso is tragic, and just the proper amount of theatricality that a viewer might find himself or herself remembering a sharp, authoritative voice after finishing a silent movie. None of the other actors can truly compete with him in the long term, although Lionel Barrymore is effective in short bursts. Mary Nolan is impressive on the other side of the film, portraying a sort of innocence that is rare in the jungle without it seeming improbable. She's never ignorant or stupid, as this sort of damsel in distress can be.

It's a lot packed into a busy hour, enough that whole accompanist Jeff Rapsis may not have been exhausted from a marathon session at the keyboard, he had to keep things intense throughout. It's a silent pulp thriller, whether you use that word to describe stories of suspense or horror.

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originally posted: 11/06/15 11:09:57
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