Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925)

This surprisingly good silent film combines the carnival and criminal worlds. In the beginning, Echo the Ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) is working a sideshow, along with Hercules the Strong Man (Victor McLaglen) and baby-faced small man Tweedledee, aka Little Willie (Harry Earles), and Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) works the crowd as a pickpocket. Echo closes his act by saying “That’s all there is to life, friends…a little laughter….a little tear...” Eager to get out of this life, the three concoct a plan to burgle houses they scope out by selling parrots to the owners. Chaney is a convincing cross-dressed Granny O’Grady, and things go well until Rosie falls in love with the straight shop assistant Hector. Hercules and Little Willie go out to do a robbery without Echo and wind up killing the owner of the house they are robbing. They plant evidence on Hector and hide, but Rosie prevails on Echo to save him. Eventually he does, quite dramatically in the courtroom, and when Rosie arrives at the sideshow to make good her promise to stay with him if he saves Hector, Echo says he was just kidding and lets her go, his heart breaking but a smile on his face, and the movie ending with his motto repeated. Busch is remarkable for being able to play the moll with a sneer and mocking laughter and a demi-ingenue in love, and she’s lovely in both modes. McLaglen is big, and Earles is little. And Chaney’s repertoire of facial expressions is nothing short of amazing—his posture and gestures make his Granny convincing, though if you watch carefully you can see the other layer of character, Echo, just inside. It’s a tour-de-force performance, almost enough to make one forget about the absurdity of hingeing the plot of a silent movie on ventriloquism…

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Marmoulak / The Lizard (Kamal Tabrizi, 2004)

A surprisingly gentle, funny, humane, and yet devout movie from Iran. The hero is Reza Marmalouk, Reza the Lizard (Parviz Parastui), a burglar specializing in climbing. As he enters prison, he encounters a chilly warden who says it’s his job to help the prisoners, a task carried out by sending them to solitary. When Reza accidentally cuts himself he is transferred to the hospital, where he shares a room with a holy man, a mullah, who instead of judging him as a thief speaks very kindly. Reza steals his clothes and escapes, but wanders into a village that has been eagerly awaiting a clergyman. From then on his attempts to escape backfire—not badly, but well, for the villagers interpret his visits to the criminal quarter (where he’s searching for a forged passport) as acts of charity in disguise. His preaching is earthy and inclusive—“There is no one in this world who doesn’t have a path to reach God.” This seems to be the movie’s theme, and somehow he manages to help people discern their paths, and gradually becomes the mullah he’s pretending to be. He still keeps some of his criminal lingo; in a sermon delivered in a jail, he says, “God is the heaviest dude in gentleness, the heaviest dude in kindness, the heaviest dude in friendship, and the heaviest dude in forgiving.” The steely warden tracks him down, and the director Tabrizi leaves the ending open. Reza hands his mullah outfit to a boy, saying that clothing tames people, and people need to be tamed, and he goes off with the warden, who tells his associate handcuffs won’t be necessary. Or does Reza go? The film ends with a beautiful song, with the refrain “I am waiting,” and the police car disappears down the street and the men in the mosque turn as if greeting him—then a freeze-frame with his voice speaking the lines about many paths, and then the credits roll, and several other voice-over lines pop up. Did the warden relent and find his own path? A very funny and moving film, extraordinarily well-acted by Parastui