My Lon Chaney viewing resulted in a screening of his 1928 proto-DIRTY HARRY tough cop flick WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which resulted in a Chiseler piece, appropriately enough as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival comes to an end. Here’s a lovely review of NATAN by Silent London, who unlike your correspondent has been tirelessly reviewing her entire day’s viewing as soon as she gets back to her hotel each night. Instead, I’m going to have a heap of writing to do when I finally get back.
Archive for Lon Chaney
We loved HOLY MOTORS, now that we finally caught up with it. I have very little history with M. Carax and will now need to catch up with those I’ve missed. Thankfully, we HAD seen TOKYO! so we’d met M. Merde, which may not help understand anything about his appearance in this film but does allow one to greet him as an old friend. A terrifying old friend who eats flowers and has a dog’s erection.
Basically, in this film Carax’ main man Denis Lavant drives around in a stretch limo (a Fever Dream Double Feature with Mr. Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS is a must!) and assumes various disguises/characterisations. He has a dressing room mirror and a shitload of wigs and noses and stuff in the back. Oh, and Edith Scob from EYES WITHOUT A FACE is his driver. When Lavant dons these costumes he enters storylines which have the appearance of complete reality — he can even die, authentically, in these mini-films (HM is kind of a compendium film but without actual “stories” as such) but always returns to life and his strange “job”.
Some flickering half-light is shed on this by a tense meeting with Michel Piccoli, seemingly an employer, who worries if Lavant’s character fully believes in his work anymore. Lavant admits that things have gotten harder since the cameras became miniaturized to the point of invisibility. So these are films he’s appearing in, and thus the whole thing can be seen as a metaphor for cinema, and for Carax and Lavant’s parallel careers — the explicit references to past Carax movies fit neatly into this context.
This may also shed some light on the funny and beautiful coda when the limo is retired to a parking garage with dozens of similarly Tex-Avery-elongated counterparts. And the cars have a conversation, their headlamps flickering as they speak. It’s the kind of conversation that occurs in dormitories when a few annoying people aren’t quite ready to sleep. Carax himself is one of the automobile voices.
How this ties in to the main film isn’t exactly clear (nor are Lavant’s domestic arrangements, revealed in his last scene, but they made Fiona howl with astonished laughter) but it helps to realize that Lavant seems to be riffing on the deleted first scene of SUNSET BLVD. Billy Wilder deleted this because audiences laughed as William Holden’s corpse was fitted with a toe-tag, little realizing they were chortling at their own fate, some of them. Deleted along with that moment was a conversation between corpses in the morgue, their sheeted forms lighting up as they speak, echoed the flashing lights of Carax’s serried limos (those blinking lights also remind me of Daleks).
SUNSET BLVD, of course, is also a movie about movies, with an elegiac tone comparable, in a way, to Carax’s.
Paul Duane suggests that Lavant is channeling Lon Chaney in this movie, which I guess is what prompted us to finally watch it. It’s true — the actor creating his own make-ups… Merde’s milky eye echoes a specific effect (achieved with egg skin) produced by Chaney in THE ROAD TO MANDALAY… there’s even a random ape scene, which could be seen as a Tod Browning homage.
THE ACE OF HEARTS (1921) is directed by Wallace HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Worsley and deals with a secret society of anarchists or communists or something (the film never specifies) who are plotting the assassination of a vicious capitalist, known only as The Man Who Had Lived Too Long. For ages the conspirators are the only characters we meet, and since they include hero John Bowers and heroine Leatrice Joy as well as uncertainly-positioned character player Lon Chaney we’re in the odd position of rooting for the Enemies of Society, or so it would seem. They draw cards to see who will do the honours and, lacking the advice of a South American death squad or Lemmy from Motorhead, they use the titular ace of hearts to signify the winning ticket. Bowers is delighted to get the role, Chaney is cast down at being passed over, and Leatrice is so thrilled for Bowers she marries him.
This is all played out very, very slowly, but compels just by the surreal inversion of conventional morality. Sadly, this is dissipated when the narrative, from a book by Gouverneur Morris (whose great-grandfather was the Founding Father of the same name) unveils its cunning ploy — after a night of marital bliss (while the lovelorn Chaney sits out on the stoop in the thrashing rain) the newlyweds suddenly lose their passion for homicide, and find themselves targeted by their former co-conspirators. Now the killers are the bad guys and Bowers and Joy are just wimpy love interest. Only Chaney retains interest, with his slouch hat and appalling Max Wall hairstyle.
The print is thinly scratched in a million places, creating a sort of rain effect even when we’re not sitting with Lon in a downpour. By contrast, the earlier THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is spotted with blobs of nitrate decomposition specking the frame in a manner suggestive of a very rapid snowstorm. Neither rain nor wind nor hail nor snow / Only nitrate decomposition can stop the show.
This early Tod Browning stars Priscilla Dean, feisty thief from OUTSIDE THE LAW, as a pickpocket who works with Chaney (as Stoop Connors — one always hopes Chaney’s criminous characters will have great nicknames) but falls for a washed-up former swell (the magnificently named Wellington Playter). There are fights (complete with nose-gouging, see below), noble gestures, and some great grotesque underworld character touches. I was very taken with the hulking Kalla Pasha, apparently a popular Mack Sennett player, here making his debut. Another great name in a film of great names.
It’s minor Browning, without the truly perverse elements of the macabre maestro’s finest hours, but pretty entertaining, and Dean’s combination of fakey play-acting and occasional bursts of raw emotion makes for an amusing central perf.