The Wicked Darling

The society woman who leaves when the fortune runs out is like the pretty thief who steals her pearl necklace, an elaborate metaphor never underscored but sustained throughout.

Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney.

A print in poor condition is all that remains.


Outside the Law

A Confucian principle of government is illustrated here, crime is the product of bad government, the ruler’s influence determines the people’s conduct. Chang Low prevails upon the authorities to drop the charge if the jewels are returned, a mysterious change takes place in the holed-up thieves on “Knob Hill”, the agency is a small boy (“the government shall be upon his shoulder”).

There is still a great fight with the gang boss, whose method is to inculpate his enemies falsely and thus place them outside the law, unwillingly the authorities abet him.

Charlie Chan was several years away. Two pairs of great actors carry the leading roles, Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman as the couple on the run, and Lon Chaney as Blackie and Ah Wing, Chang Low’s assistant.


The Unholy Three

Grandmother, Father, Baby, played by a male ventriloquist, a sideshow strong man, and a midget.

Mrs. O’Grady’s bird store is the front, there’s millions in robbing the houses of rich customers who complain their ventriloquized parrots don’t speak.

A centrally famous work. The ventriloquist is caught in the middle like Malabar between two horses (The Unknown), there is the young couple trying to go straight (Outside the Law, West of Zanzibar).

Among the film’s countless admirers is Fellini (La Strada), Browning reworked it as The Devil-Doll, Mackendrick yet again as The Ladykillers.


The Mystic

An American crook turns a little Hungarian sideshow act into a stately production to fool a young Stateside heiress out of her fortune.

A completely unpredictable variant of Outside the Law (the apprehension scene is reproduced exactly).

It costs a lot of money to build up the act in the New York press and supply it with newfangled gizmos and Erté gowns for Zara the Mystic.

Mordaunt Hall noted the gowns but thought the work inferior to The Unholy Three and said so in the New York Times.

The question now is “can the dead return to life?” A number of themes and images in all of Browning’s work are visible.


The Blackbird

In this further consideration of Outside the Law, Chaney is a Limehouse crook who disguises himself as the local saint for cover.

West End Bertie goes slumming and hires robbers to strip the party, he and the Blackbird vie for a new performer, Fifi.

Mordaunt Hall saw a slightly different version and praised it in the highest terms on behalf of the New York Times.

The Blackbird transforms himself into the Bishop with a rigorous jerk of arm and leg, a cripple on a crutch, “life is what you make it,” he beams.

Marvelously astute direction and performances went for nothing, as always, with Variety.


The Unknown

The tale of a circus thief, hiding out as Alonzo the Armless, who fires with his feet.

The beautiful target cannot bear to be touched, Malabar the strong man cures her of that, but Alonzo has given his right arm and his left for her.

Malabar restrains a horse on either hand, the girl whips them on from above, Alonzo stops the treadmills, a rearing horse crushes him.

A more than brilliant understanding more than usually admired by some writers, but not Variety, which set the tone for the rest.


London After Midnight

The film at present exists as stills and intertitles and Mark of the Vampire, so that one of Chaney’s most remarkable makeups is lost.

Guinness saw it and remembered it or imagined it, however, in The Ladykillers (Chaney’s other role, Inspector Burke, bears a great resemblance to Olivier).


West of Zanzibar

A very effective analysis by John Huston in The Man Who Would Be King exhausts all the major lines of inquiry, and works both ways, leaving only the details to examine within a continuous dramatic performance marked by a transformation that suddenly lapses just before the end, the Congo loses a witch doctor and gains a variety artiste.

It all happened too fast for Variety’s reviewer, who was in the unfortunate position of having no idea what was going on, but Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was more like a critic, he would have liked more spaciousness.




The theme is sounded in blackness just before the credits, Swan Lake. Browning’s artistry is more than acting and décor and the sizeable atmosphere of mystery, he regulates the tempo of the film virtuosically, playing against this the line of camera movement and editing in a variable and nimble tessitura that is one of the finest things in cinema. His controlling image is nightmare itself, the film returns at points to a direct statement of it. This nightmare is a generalization, it has specific dimensions, within them is found the horror of the film.

Dracula is the Prince of Darkness, the order he wears on his chest often mockingly looks like the six-pointed star uniting above and below. He parts a flaming red sea, in Renfield’s account, that rats in their thousands may be fed upon by his servant. The perverseness marks his worship, which renders the worshiper void of reflection, as the “synagogue of Satan”.

The radical slowness of tempo characteristic of the pall cast by Count Dracula has been acknowledged and treated analytically by Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the subtle variance in tempo is dramatically understood by Chabrol in La Demoiselle d’honneur (the “three boxes” are repeated as the survey party of Kubrick’s film). The ending of Dracula perhaps suggests that of Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête.

Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger is heard at the London concert hall where Dracula introduces himself, perhaps because he is a bloodsucker like Beckmesser but John Harker wins the prize.

Browning’s genius is to treat these horrors as fairy tale, an illusion of sleep, a deepening hypnosis in which the technique of his art stands clearly. He does more than provide a Grand Guignol for Lugosi, an actor of genius. The delirious camerawork outside Seward Sanitarium is a refinement of the subtle motion elsewhere (as later with Preminger’s Saint Joan, critics have hallucinated a stillness not in evidence, alarmingly). The sudden lash of the Count’s arm as he strikes away the mirror that is offered to him appears as unwonted as Van Helsing’s Scottish accent, which might have inspired Abner Biberman in Salome, Where She Danced.



They represent themselves as circus performers, funhouse mirrors of a paying public. The little German midget loves Cleopatra, the trapeze artist. Alas, Hans has an inheritance, she marries him for it and applies slow poison.

His fellows in the circus get wind of it and cut her down to size, or was it the storm that night?

A sublime, excruciating comedy of the noblest manner and the greatest skill.


Mark of the Vampire

The vampire with a hole in his head.

“Some real estate brokers from Prague...”

The daughter is a good match, the wedding feast is held away from the castle.

A place of spiders, bats and opossums.

The vampire’s daughter has designs on the bride.

The professor and Inspector Neumann from Prague run an investigation.

The bride’s father is dead.

Browning’s vaudeville on the Dracula theme, a very close remake of London After Midnight, with Lionel Barrymore and Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi and Jean Hersholt.


The Devil-Doll

Two escaped convicts, one a banker robbed and framed by his partners, the other a scientist with a plan to cure famine by reducing animals and people to one-sixth their size (it renders them inanimate unless motivated by a will not their own).

The scientist dies, the banker uses his discovery to wreak revenge, by-and-by he has two little apache dancers to do his bidding, one a half-wit Berlin peasant girl whose mind is improved in the procedure, the other is one of the partners.

The banker disguises himself as an old lady and, with the scientist’s widow, opens a Paris toyshop.

The film was not readily perceived at the time (Variety said the screenplay was “lacking in originality”), and criticism being what it is the difficulty remains (Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader says, “among its many kinky delights are sadomasochism and transvestism, but as usual Browning’s flat style keeps the action disappointingly in check”).


Miracles for Sale

That is, magic act illusions, startlingly developed for stage drama, as noted by Hal Erickson (Rovi), “starts well, with a grisly political execution,” China in the Thirties. Blackmail in Europe is the motive for murder, the political climate of 1939 is seen through as one illusion after another, from sawing a woman in half to the locked-room escape and so forth.

The title’s other significance is borrowed from Houdini’s long examination of spiritualists, Madame Rapport has the authority of Professor Sabbatt, a creditable Englishman “found dead in a devil’s circle with candles burning around him” (Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, who wrote of “these things... fun to watch... not models of plot carpentry”).

Variety agreed with Nugent, unable to “follow the affair”. Halliwell’s Film Guide has “what could have been a smart mystery piece is sabotaged...”

Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema says “the morbid cinema of Tod Browning seems to have been ahead of its time on some levels and out of its time on others.”