West of Zanzibar (1928)

“For all the suffering he brought her, he’s going to pay!”

Synopsis:
After learning his wife (Jacqueline Gadsden) has betrayed him, a magician (Lon Chaney, Sr.) is paralyzed in a fight with her lover (Lionel Barrymore), and later seeks revenge upon both Barrymore and his wife’s grown daughter (Mary Nolan).

Genres:

Review:
Based upon the 1926 Broadway play Kongo (which was filmed as a talkie in 1932 with Walter Huston), this atmospheric silent film by director Tod Browning has retained much of its power and creepy eloquence, thanks in large part to a haunting central performance by Lon Chaney, Sr. The 65-minute screenplay hurls along at breakneck speed, quickly setting up the initial conflict, then suddenly sending us (for no apparent reason) to the depths of Africa, where Chaney’s character uses his skills as a magician to hold sway over the natives. While one might wish for a tad more explanation or exposition, the film’s central theme remains crystal clear: Chaney will avenge both the loss of his wife and the loss of his mobility, at any cost. Watching him slither along the floor, a snarl permanently etched onto his face, one feels it’s not really possible for a man to be more deeply scarred and embittered. Barrymore, meanwhile, makes a worthy foil, and the sets convey an appropriate sense of claustrophobic menace. Warner Baxter as Chaney’s personal doctor (whose loyal presence is never fully explained) serves as a welcome relief in the midst of such unrelenting gloom; knowing that he will likely fall for the pretty, put-upon Nolan helps us feel some small sense of hope.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lon Chaney as Phroso, a.k.a. “Dead-Legs”
  • Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Crane
  • Appropriately claustrophobic sets

Must See?
Yes; this remains a powerful early revenge flick, one which all film fanatics should check out.

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One Response to “West of Zanzibar (1928)”

  1. A once-must.

    Rather in agreement here. A very odd little flick yet worth a view for Chaney’s performance alone – truly a tragic role. Note early on as you see Chaney performing his magician act; he seems a bit like Chaplin or Keaton in the lightness of his stage routine. Makes it that much sadder to see where fate takes him. You do probably have to suspend some disbelief when it comes to the specifics of how the situation in Africa gets set up and maintains itself. But, to me, it doesn’t really matter – if you just accept things as they bizarrely are and go from there.

    Fave sequence: We are taken to the dive where Nolan has been raised. I like how Browning captures the atmosphere of the place and the people who seem to be there because they have nowhere else to go. Something very O’Neill about it.

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