Tag Archives: Tod Browning

LUGOSI

According to ‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  Several biographers, however, have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period.  It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones.  Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings.  After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States.  Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films.  In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play.  With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.

Bela Lugosi as DraculaIn 1929, director , shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929)Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence, and he brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas.  Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.  The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part.  His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language Continue reading LUGOSI

TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)

Tod Browning‘s final film, Miracles For Sale (1939) has been made available on home video for the first time in 2011.  It is part of the Warner Archive Collection, but rather oddly, it’s  hidden inside a Robert Young double-feature package.  Nothing against Young, but one is tempted to ask the Warner Marketing team an incredulous “what were you thinking?”  The list of devotees of actor Robert Young would seem quite short today.  Comparatively, the marketing team would probably generate far more interest in collections by directors such as Browning or James Whale, both of who still have considerable followings among classic film fans,  genre fans, film students, and film historians.

Although Browning was on his brand of “best behavior” following the debacle of Freaks (1932) and was forced to be cautious within the Will Hays Code Universe, he stubbornly only made compromises which still allowed him to be Tod Browning, retaining thematic continuity up to this, his last work.  Miracles For Sale begins with a typical Browning scenario: mutilation.  A young woman has been captured and awaits military execution for political crimes.  She is placed in a large box and shot in half.  This stark opening is followed by another Browning theme: the illusion.  It turns out this below the waist mutilation is merely a staged demonstration trick for the magician’s business “Miracle for Sale.”  According to the magician and seller of magic tricks,  Mike Morgan (Robert Young), “the hand is faster than the eye” (with a sleight of hand now, watch that sugar bowl).  The structure of Miracles For Sale takes Morgan’s credo to heart.  It is kinetically paced like a screwball comedy, reminding us that Browning’s earliest ventures into film were slapstick.

Still from Miracles for Sale (1939)In this very loose adaptation of Clayton Rawson’s hit novel, “Death from a Top Hat,” Browning revisits familiar, obsessive themes of fake spiritualism, magic acts, the whodunnit locked door murder mystery, and transformation through disguises (the last provided by the Houdini-like character of Dave Duvallo, played by Henry Hull of 1935’s Werewolf of London).  Morgan has a reputation for assisting the police department in helping to expose phony mediums, occultists and immoral tricksters who prey on gullible widows and the like.  Morgan’s rep gets Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)

TOD BROWNING’S THE MYSTIC (1925)

Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The Mystic from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Show (1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929).  The early knife-throwing act seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown The Mystic (1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival.  The main attraction of the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle).  Zara is  part of a trio which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert Ober).  Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.

Still from The Mystic (1925)Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to take their act to America, where they can bilk  naive, rich Manhattanites out of their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the scam.  To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed aside.  Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience.  He becomes reluctant to swindle a young heiress.  The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must want her for himself; but, Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest life for Zara.  Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law (1920), as are the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.

Pringle shows considerable screen charisma; or, at least, Browning draws it out of her here.  Her performance compares to other great female roles in Browning’s ouevre: Joan Crawford in The Unknown and Lupe Velez in Where East is East.  In many scenes, such as the knife throwing scene, Pringle looks remarkably like Crawford; in close-ups, Pringle exudes the same soft sensuality and subtle anguish.  In other scenes, Pringle shares the bubbly quality that we see later in Velez’s performance. At other times Pringle calls to mind the mysterious exoticism of Edna Tichenor.  Unfortunately, Pringle and Browning never got to work together again.  The actress was reportedly difficult to work with; most of her co-stars considered he an intellectual snob.  Indeed, she kept company with many of the artisans and intellectuals of her day.  George Gershwin and H.L. Mencken were among her notable lovers and she was married, briefly, to author James M. Cain.  Pringle’s acting career never really took off, and she didn’t seem to care.  She remained active in films (mostly small parts, which included uncredited roles) up until the mid 1940s and died in 1989 at the age of 94.

Because of the lack of usual Browning stars, The Mystic is an interesting, lesser known film in the director’s canon.  Not only is it thematically related to his other films, but it also shows the idiosyncratic continuity of his taste in actresses and his ability to mold actors, whoever they were.

Note: the luxurious costumes for The Mystic were the work of legendary French designer Erté.  Erté, who was a big fan of Georges Méliès, later said it was a thrilling experience to collaborate with such a distinguished surrealist as Tod Browning.

TOD BROWNING’S OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean.  Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.  Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike.  Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment.  The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting  is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation.  Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious  imagery and themes.  In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin.  In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology.  Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Poster for Outside the LawHere, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life.  Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way.  Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty.  Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s  naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete.  He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite.  As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition).  It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.  Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped.  Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.

Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable.  Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930.  The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.  While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is.  Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.

TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent Tod Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning).  It is  (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of Souls.”  Originally titled  “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from  silent cinema, nearly on par with the director’s The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions.  A character with the name of an animal is a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both the character and the actor.  The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert, who had made what turned out to be a fatal error.  When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the altar, where studio boss Louis B. Mayer made a loud derogatory remark for all to hear.  Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer.  Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood).  Mayer’s revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound, when he reportedly had the actor’s recorded dialogue manipulated to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career.  Whether Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally  set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles, and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert.  Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink.  He actually had a  fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) (she insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s strenuous objections).  Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937).  The Show was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident, and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Still from The Show (1927)Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver.  He ushers patrons in to the  show with the help of “The Living Hand of Cleopatra,” a disembodied hand akin to Thing from “The Addams Family.”  Among Cock’s unholy trio of mutilated-below-the-waist attractions is ‘Zela, the Half Lady.’ “Believe me boys, there are no cold feet here to bother you!”  Zela is followed by ‘Arachnadia! The Human Spider!,’ a heavily mascaraed, disembodied head in a web (played Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

TOD BROWNING’S WHITE TIGER (1923)

Tod Browning‘s White Tiger (1923) finds the director revisiting intimate motifs and has an unusual connection to Edgar Allan Poe (Browning, who has often been referred to as the Poe of cinema, listed the classic author as his favorite).  In 1836, Poe wrote an exposé of the touring “Mechanical Chess Player” Automaton.  In the article Poe revealed that inside this mechanical chess player was a concealed, quite human, operator.  Poe’s article was the seed for Browning’s film, which the director co-wrote with screenwriter Charles Kenyon.

White Tiger stars Browning regular Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Walter Beery.  Griffith, who got his start with Mack Sennett, was once considered a rival to both Chaplin and Keaton.  Due to a childhood injury to his vocal cords, Griffith was practically mute, quashing any chance he might have had for surviving into sound film.  Most of Griffith’s films are lost, but the most celebrated, the Civil War comedy Hands Up (1926), survives, and is thought by some to be nearly as good as Keaton’s (somewhat overrated)The General from the same year.  Although that comparison is highly debatable, Hands Up is a unique film and worth seeing.  It is available from Grapevine Video, but otherwise it is hard to find.

Griffith’s screen persona was that of a debonair comedian, a la Max Linder, but  Browning, of course, used him quite differently.  Griffith plays Roy Donovan.  Sylvia (Dean) is Roy’s sister, but they are separated at childhood when Hawkes (Beery) betrays their father, Mike Donovan (Alfred  Allen), which results in Mike’s murder.  Hawkes takes Sylvia with him.  She believes her brother has also died and is unaware that Hawkes was her father’s Judas.

Still from White Tiger (1923)Years later, Sylvia is a professional pickpocket under the guardianship of Hawkes, who now goes by the new identity of  Count Donelli.  Sylvia stakes out her victims at the London Wax Museum.  There she meets The Kid, who, unknown to her, is her long lost brother, Roy.  Roy has his own nefarious gig; the Mechanical Chess Player.  When Sylvia introduces the Kid to her “father,” Count Donelli, the three form an unholy alliance, which leads them and the Mechanical Chess Player to a new land of opportunity in America.

Roy develops incestuous feelings for Sylvia (of course, he is still unaware that she is his sibling), which leads to jealousy when Sylvia falls for goody two shoe Dick Longworth (Matt Moore).  Tension between the unholy three builds with the arrival of Dick.  After a jewelry heist in a mansion, utilizing the Mechanical Chess Player, the trio hole up at a claustrophobic cabin in the mountains.  The final quarter of the film casts a Poe-like eye on imagined (and real) enemies.  Mistrust between the trio is sowed and much coffee is downed, in an effort to stay awake and keep an eye on each other and the hidden jewelry.

The truth about Hawk’s betrayal of Sylvia’s real father comes out, as does the revelation that the Kid is none other than her brother.  The Oedipal killing of a (surrogate) father, mistrust among a trio of criminals, theft of jewels, false identities, the double cross, staged gimmickry, deception (which the spectator audience is privy to), latent incest, followed by jealousy for a righteous rival, a claustrophobic getaway retreat, and a finale in which one of the criminals deeds goes unpunished are familiar Browning themes.  Poe’s deceptive Mechanical Chess Player is a bizarre, added quirk.

According to several Browning biographers, acquaintances of the director and his wife, Alice, would often be forced to lock up the jewelry when the two came to visit because the Brownings had a notorious reputation for swiping  any stones they could get their hands on.  At least Tod Browning’s empathy for the criminal mindset was an honest one.

TOD BROWNING’S THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)

In his next to last film, Tod Browning revisits the same territory as The Unholy Three (1925), with a surreal twist.  The Devil Doll (1936) is based on Abraham Merritt’s novel “Burn, Witch, Burn,” with a screenplay by Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, and Browning.  Lionel Barrymore, who had a long collaborative history with Browning, stars as escaped convict Paul Lavond.

17 years earlier, Lavond had been sent to prison after being framed by three banking partners.  Lavond has escaped with a fellow convict, Marcel (Henry Walthall, another Browning regular) who just happens to be a mad scientist.  Together, they make it to Marcel’s home and wife, Malita (the hammy Rafaela Ottiano), who also is, conveniently, a mad scientist.  Marcel dies, but not before showing Lavond the scientific discovery that he and Malita have been working on for years.  They are able to shrink animals and people to a sixth of their normal size.  Considering all the problems with world food shortage, anyone could see the value of this discovery (!).  Anyone except Lavond, that is, who is a bit leery when he finds out the shrinking process wipes out memory cells and the subject’s willpower.

Still from The Devil Doll (1936)The three bankers who betrayed him are a new Unholy Three, a reprehensible trinity driven by love of money.  Lavond, Malita and Marcel are three societal outcasts who are despised and rejected.  Browning is committed to making sure we root for the underdog; quite the reversal of contemporary, evolved reality shows that deify the affluent top dogs.

Seeing a new potential vehicle for his revenge, Lavond is accompanied by Malita with a case full of shrunken critters in hand.  Lavond sets out on a Count of Monte Cristo mission, but considering this is a Tod Browning production, Lavond hardly dons a chivalrous persona like Robert Donat in the 1934 film.  Rather, he gets in old lady drag (a la Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three) and takes on the identity of Madame Mandilip, proprietress.

With a couple of six inch Tweedledees, Lavond, in his best Sweeney Todd fashion, opens up a doll shop (rather than a parrot shop or pie shop), exacts revenge, steals jewelery (which he hides in a toy, just like in Unholy Three) and sets out to find the holy child: his long lost daughter, Lorraine ( Maureen O’ Sullivan, aka Tarzan’s Jane). This is yet another frequently used Browning subplot of a severed father/daughter relationship.

What makes The Devil Doll unique is the science fiction angle and a female mad scientist in Ottiano (who has an Elsa Lanchester like streak in her hair).  By the time of The Devil Doll, Browning was comfortable with the sound medium and the film benefits from this newfound familiarity, fluid camera work, and the charmingly rudimentary FX for the incredible shrunken people.

As Lavond, Barrymore delivers a subdued, controlled performance.  In drag, Barrymore raises the ham meter considerably.  Although a sympathetic character, Barrymore conveys genuine creepiness in the revenge scenes as he enforces his will through the dolls by intense concentration.

Ironically, to proves his innocence, Lavond must again go into exile at the film’s end and must forever forsake his daughter.  The Devil Doll is a surrealist delight in its sheer lunacy.

TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

The Thirteenth Chair (1929) is Tod Browning‘s first sound film and a real curio.  Like a lot of early sound films, it is bogged down with wax museum staging.  Chair is yet another drawing room murder mystery, taken from an antiquated stage play, but being a Tod Browning production, the film cannot resist its own latent, deviant infrastructure in the acutely bizarre casting of  Bela Lugosi as the well-dressed Inspector Delzante.

Still from The Thirteenth Chair (1929)In the original play, the character of the inspector had a different name and was played for laughs.  The Thirteenth Chair was an all around testing-the-waters kind of film; a test handling that new invention called sound, which neither Browning nor the production team were comfortably with (all too clearly).  The main test here, however, was for the upcoming role of Dracula, and for that reason Browning grabbed Lugosi, who had made the vampire role a mega hit on the stage circuit.

Lugosi’s make-up, with sharply accented eyebrows, is patterned after the make-up he wore as Dracula in the play version of Bram Stoker’s tale.  His mannerisms are pure vamp, not at all what the role of the inspector originally called for.  His first appearance is shot from the back.  He is in a police station, dressed from head to shoes in white, but when he turns towards the camera, he delivers the lines as only a Transylvanian Count would.  Thankfully, Lugosi is wildly disproportionate to the role and serves as an almost surreal red herring for the film.  This may have been a test project for Browning, but he had to make it interesting for himself, and he did so first with the eccentric casting of the “Living, Hypnotic Corpse” as the inspector.

Lugosi beautifully mangles the English language, as per his norm, but his handling of the Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

TOD BROWNING’S WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929)

Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Poster for Where East Is EastWhere East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning’s silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez).   Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection.  Daddy and Toya’s relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger’s ex-wife and Toya’s mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey).  For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy.  She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger’s part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya’s world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger’s world.   Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya.  Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses.  It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge.  Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva.  Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.

Still from The Blackbird (1926)Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of  Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.