The Unholy Three (Tod Browning / U.S., 1925):

"J’ai seul le clef de cette parade sauvage," says Rimbaud. Tod Browning begins with a foretaste of Freaks, a bustling summer day at the carnival to introduce his quartet of sideshow rogues. Prof. Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) works the crowd up front while the pickpocket (Mae Busch) operates from the back, the muscle-bound palooka (Victor McLaglen) keeps the spectacle going until the irritated Tweedledee (Harry Earles) punts the smirk off a child’s face. The pretense of regular society is really just another form of showbiz, for the new scheme they band together in a straightfaced parody of the family unit and gnaw away at the edges of normalcy. Their front is a pet shop run by Chaney hunched in grayish drag, parrots are the specialty, his vocal tricks (visualized with word balloons penciled on the celluloid à la Brakhage) hoodwink customers looking for chatty birds. The bogus granny infiltrates their mansions with stroller at hand, decked out in a baby’s bonnet is the dwarf with mean little eyes scanning for jewelry. "It’s so ridiculous... so simple... that it scares you!" Scurrying goblins and caged beasts abound in this fabulously curious tale of redemption, governed by a fierce acerbity: The natural world is but a painted backdrop for rejected romance, nondescript domestic interiors are mere screens onto which misshapen shadows are projected, and that’s before an oversized chimp smashes through the door. A sustained close-up of Busch struggling to stay hardboiled during a rush of tears points to Browning’s apprenticeship with Griffith, the toddling psychopath with cigar might be a model for Little Caesar. The uneasy harmony of voice and body at the close is prime Chaney melancholia, the artist whole before his audience yet alone with his dummy: "That’s all there is to life, folks—a little laugh, a little tear..." With Matt Moore, Matthew Betz, and Edward Connelly. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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