The Brothel in Zanzibar
“The brothel in Zanzibar” — what visions of gaiety those four simple words call to mind! The film is Tod Browning’s WEST OF ZANZIBAR, again, and the brothel is represented in several shots, of which I have selected but two.
First, the broad view, by means of matte painting, since Browning is a man who would rather repeat his castrational car accident than actually go on location, anywhere. Zanzibar is entirely out of the question. But we love matte paintings, even when used questionably, and there’s no question here — Browning’s universe is a claustrophobic construct of the studio, where a mere gust of fresh air might wither his hothouse creations, the perverse, vengeful, disfigured and demented denizens of his moonlit menagerie.
Second, the close-up, accorded to a supporting character of no narrative significance, who limpidly projects an air of madness and deformity, mingled with sultry eroticism and abandon. I’m proposing her for a posthumous Oscar for that ELBOW alone, a torpid dumpling without a suggestion of bone, the cigarette in lifeless left hand seeming to grant it a supernumary nipple. And say what you like about Adrien Brody in THE PIANIST, he didn’t achieve that.
Browning has this inexplicable reputation for not being good. It’s bizarre. He’s only not good in DRACULA, and only intermittently in the second half of that. He was up against a drinking problem and a cost-cutting regime at Universal, slicing pencil erasers in half to make them go further, according to Lugosi, so that’s perhaps why he seems to leave the camera running unattended at times, but you don’t find that sloppiness in his other hits, and the fact that WEST OF ZANZIBAR scores a wild climax like the little vignette above when Chaney, the man of the match, isn’t even around, shows how artful TB could be.