Thursday, March 25, 2010

Circus Films: Nightmare Alley, Freaks, and The Unknown

It's past midnight, I'd still like to get TWIT done by the time I get to work tomorrow/today. I have little to say about the circus, anyway, although I'll go for a silent with live accompaniment any time.

Nightmare Alley

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema)

Most film noirs involve scams of some sort, as do certain types of entertainment. The difference is that a patsy in a confidence game is not on some level making a choice to play along, consciously or unconsciously, the way the person in the audience of a magic show is. Well, that and the amount of money that changes hands. The basic skills, though, are highly transferable, which is the start of a decent story.

Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is with the traveling circus, a barker with an eye for the ladies who assists "psychic" Zeena (Joan Blondell) while her drunk of a husband, Pete (Ian Keith), assists out of sight. It wasn't always low-rent sideshows for Zeena and Pete, though - they once headlined vaudeville shows with a mentalist act, and even now Zeena steadfastly refuses to sell their highly-valuable code. Once Stan gets wind of this, he starts working on her, eventually learning the code himself - and lighting out for Chicago with Molly (Coleen Gray), who doesn't have so many miles on her. The act is a hit, but with success comes temptation - and sharp-witted psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) represents it in two forms.

Nightmare Alley starts out with a fairly tight script, but like Stan, it occasionally falls victim to its own ambition. It starts out working the line between lying on stage and lying for real, and just how far Stan's amorality can go. The second half, on the other hand, seems like a bit more of a stretch: It makes the jump from deception we allow in the name of entertainment to talking about faith, but doesn't have the teeth to really get into that comparison (among other things). It also pushes suspension of disbelief a little far; the story runs on people being credulous, but you can only take that so far. The fall from grace just isn't handled as well as the rise.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema)

Movie lovers know certain lines even if they haven't seen the films they are spoken in: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." "Round up the usual suspects." "It's alive! It's alive!" And, of course, "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you, one of us, one of us!" Freaks is the film that spawned that strange final refrain, and though its reputation is often more infamy than fame, it's every bit the classic as the others.

The film opens with a scroll of text, telling us that throughout history, those who were either born deformed or who became that way through misadventure were often abandoned by their villages and families to die in the wilderness, but they would sometimes form communities, and woe betide the man who attacked one member! In this case, the community is attached to a traveling circus, where little people Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are engaged. But Hans finds aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) very attractive, at least for a "big person", showering her with compliments and gifts. Cleopatra acts sweet, but cruelly laughs at Hans with her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor) - at least, until she finds out that Hans has an inheritance coming. Then, she gets serious - deadly serious. But, wrong one freak, and you anger them all...

Freaks is commonly billed as a horror movie, and it certainly has horror elements - especially the utterly bizarre revelation at the end. But in many ways, to see it entirely as a freakshow is to miss filmmaker Tod Browning's point that these outcasts are as human as anyone, while the traditionally attractive Cleopatra and Hercules were frequently monstrous. A great deal of this was apparently lost when the studio cut its length by nearly a third (from approximately 90 minutes to 64), but it's such a basic part of the film that even without some of its more directly satirical or declarative scenes, the message can't help but come through.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Unknown

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema, with live accompaniment by Cirkestra)

The Unknown is fabulous. By that I mean not just that it is a hoot to watch, which is true, but that it's got the feel of a fairy tale (before Disney cleaned them up), unbelievable and gruesome but with a harsh morality underneath. I'm not sure you can make a movie like this any more - actually hearing this dialog spoken would probably expose it even more for how ridiculous it is - but that's no reason not to enjoy this silent melodrama.

Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is the star of the Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, although Antonio (Nick De Ruiz) isn't fond of the man. Apparently using his feet to throw knives in an act with Zanzi's beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford) is okay; shows of affection between them, however, is a major issue. Why can't she like someone like the circus's strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry)? Alas, she hates men for how they try to get their hands all over her and their arms around her. What only Alonzo's midget assistant Cojo (John George) knows is that Alonzo's arms aren't missing, but bound in a corset, and the left one terminates in a hand with a very distinctive thumbprint, which would match those left behind at a string of thefts along the circus's path.

There's more, of course - in the course of roughly an hour, there will be murder, and a storyline that comes off as an especially twisted amalgam of Cyrano and "The Gift of the Magi". Director Tod Browning and his collaborators pile the melodrama on high, barely letting one bit of strangeness settle in the audience's collective brain before topping it. There is no subtlety to be found, with Nanon yelling things like "arms! How I hate men's arms!", just in case some in the audience are a bit slow.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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