USA | 1928 | 70 minutes | NR
Vengeance is a dish best served ice cold.
Legendary director Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) teams up again with equally legendary actor Lon Chaney (Phantom of the Opera) in this macabre tale steeped in jealousy, vengeance, and fate. Through their films together, Browning & Chaney had developed a deep understanding of a character’s inner relationship with their outward appearance, much in the same way David Cronenberg has done in many of his films.
West of Zanzibar’s considered to be one of Chaney’s finest performances and it’s good to see him sans heavy makeup using his considerable skills to convey the broken soul of his character. That coupled with the otherworldly eeriness of the film makes West of Zanzibar an unforgettable film.
The story centres on the magician Phroso who, in a jealous fight with his wife’s lover, breaks his back and ends up in a wheelchair. His wife leaves him but the next year he happens upon her, near death, with her baby daughter. In his blinding thirst for vengeance, he takes the child, and the “die is cast” for revenge upon his old rival. He follows his nemesis to the Congo where he sets himself up as a god-dictator to the locals using his magic tricks to keep them in line and sends the infant to a brothel to be raised. All the while he plots to lure his rival to him and to his doom.
*Note: there are numerous depictions of racial and cultural stereotyping in the last half. While it was as unacceptable then as it is now, we often can’t tell the stories of early film without running into these offensive incidences.
Bonus Short: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413: A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA 1928
Directors: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapic
An experimental short film on the dehumanizing aspects of the Hollywood film factory system. A keen young man arrives in Hollywood hoping to break into the movies. The studio men, however, see him as just a drone and stamps him 9413, and puts him to work as an extra.
This avant-garde short was made for $97. Florey got his friend Douglas Fairbanks to loan him film negative and editing equipment. The cameraman credit was “Gregg” and was none other than celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan
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