Classic Movies

Down came a Blackbird


Originally scheduled for an October 12th showing (and postponed for a proper Paul Newman send-off), TCM premiered The Blackbird (1926) last night—an entertaining silent melodrama from the collaborative team of actor Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. Any chance I get to watch a film involving the contribution of these two cinematic giants is literally like a hot fudge sundae.

Chaney plays two roles in Blackbird: the first being notorious thief Dan Tate (he’s nicknamed “The Blackbird”) and the second his crippled brother, “The Bishop,” who runs a mission in London’s Limehouse district. (It’s revealed fairly early on in the film, however, that both men are one in the same…so it’s not like I’m giving anything away.) Tate falls hard for a music hall performer named Fifi (played by Renee Adorée, Chaney’s co-star in Mr. Wu [1927])—who’s also captured the eye of “West End Bertie” (Owen Moore), another ne’er-do-well in the same business as Dan. Both men compete for Fifi’s attention, but because Bertie acts in a manner that suggests a shade more respectability (his business card reads “Bertram P. Glayde”) Fifi falls for him, and the couple asks “The Bishop” to preside over the whole rice-and-old-shoes affair. Bish—gleaning knowledge that could only have been obtained from his “brother”—tips off the cops about Bertie’s illicit activities and as “Blackbird” frames him for the murder of a Scotland Yard detective; then while hiding Bertie out at his place begins to turn the two lovers against one another. A clever plan in theory, but by the film’s conclusion “The Blackbird” is revealed to be the real murderer…and receives an ironic comeuppance in the bargain.

Lon Chaney—“The Man of a Thousand Faces”—is remembered and revered for the versatility of his movie roles; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) demonstrate the elaborate makeups he used to vividly bring both the titular protagonists to life. Where I feel Chaney gets short shrift is that he was such a brilliant actor that he really didn’t need the “gimmicks” to demonstrate his talent—you can watch, for example, The Ace of Hearts (1921) and see how amazing he was at conveying a character without having to make him some sort of freak. The one image that has stayed with me after seeing Blackbird is a scene in which Chaney, in character as “The Bishop,” is trying to break up Bertie and Fifi’s romance by informing the would-be bride that Bertie’s a thief; he expects Fifi to reject her fiancé but instead she forgives him, causing a mask of utter rage and disgust to appear on Chaney’s face. When the couple turns back toward him, that mask has been replaced by a beatific smile…even though you know inside he’s about ready to blow a gasket.


TCM followed Blackbird with another Chaney-Browning vehicle, The Unknown (1927), which I left on the background while I worked on a few other things (I’d already seen the film, it’s one of three features on the DVD set The Lon Chaney Collection.) I did, however, stick around to catch Vampyr (1932), the horror classic by Carl Dreyer that has been on my Must-See List for some time (sadly, I don’t watch as many foreign films as I should). A young man (Julien West, who got the leading role because he offered to finance the film) visiting a strange village begins to see strange sights (particularly shadows that operate independently from live human beings) and ends up involved with a family who’s being besieged by vampires.

It’s considered a masterpiece for its dream-like cinematography (an effect created by “flashing” the film, or exposing it to low light photography before filming) and justly-famous scene in which the protagonist witnesses his own burial (with a P.O.V. from inside his coffin) but the print shown by TCM had quite a few rough patches and the narrative of the movie itself is often disjointed and confusing (no doubt due to the fact that most prints are combined from the French and German versions). (I haven’t seen the Criterion DVD release of Vampyr, which apparently features a brand-new print of the German version that was restored in 1998.) Dreyer himself didn’t particularly fret over the story (based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly) too much, preferring to emphasize the visuals (and that is Vampyr’s successful selling point—I’ve yet to see another film that comes as close to replicating the terrifying nature of nightmares and horrific dreams) which were supervised by Rudolph Mate—who later plied his trade in the U.S. and helmed noir classics like The Dark Past (1948) and D.O.A. (1950).


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