Gun Crazy (1950) Review

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

I’m generally not the biggest fan of film noir, but once in a while I’ll see one that really tickles my fancy. Gun Crazy is one of those movies. The story is about two firearms-obsessed crack-shots – Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) – who fall in love and go on a crime spree. Does this sound like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to you? It’s certainly an important precursor to that landmark picture.

Gun Crazy is an interesting dive into the United States’ fascination with firearms. It’s a fine character study, too, being a b-movie that looks like an a-movie, thanks to its production values. The budget was low, but the strong cinematography and acting do a great deal to elevate the proceedings. The runtime is only eighty-seven minutes, so it trucks along at a good pace.

This feature has more action than your average film noir, which is probably a key reason why I enjoyed it more than most examples of that style. The body count remains relatively low, but many scenes still involve somebody taking out a pistol. One of the best sequences in the film is a one-shot robbery scene that must’ve been pretty ambitious considering the low budget.

No, I don’t love this one more than the aforementioned masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s still a very entertaining, stylish little flick. This thriller even has a non-criminal character named “Clyde” – Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis). It lives up to its lurid title and its sensationalistic tagline (“Thrill Crazy…Kill Crazy…Gun Crazy“). Even if you’re not a noir person, this one still might be worth tracking down.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unknown (1927) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes (original version), 49 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent drama-thriller The Unknown was one of ten movies that actor Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning. Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is a shady circus knife-thrower with no arms (he tosses the blades with his feet) who’s willing to do anything to win the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford). First, Chaney had no legs in The Penalty (1920) and now he’s performing without any arms! What a trooper!

Lon Chaney is in top form here. He appears to be a top-notch contortionist, performing activities with his feet that one would normally do with their hands. A trip to the Trivia page on IMDb for The Unknown reveals that he occasionally had a double in this picture, the actually armless Paul Desmuke, for scenes that required that extra bit of talent, like those involving playing a musical instrument with the feet. This is incorporated seamlessly into the finished film.

This is a somewhat twisted movie, but, with a current running time of only 49 minutes, it does feel a little undercooked at times. A longer version existed at one time. That being said, the climax is appropriately tense and the overall picture certainly isn’t boring. As with many Lon Chaney flicks, this one revolves around a romantic triangle where he plays the grotesque figure.

The Unknown is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as some of the other features starring Lon Chaney. Maybe the long-lost footage would improve the finished product. It’s a macabre treat (though not a horror film, as some have suggested), but I think it needs those missing sequences to soar. That being said, I’d still recommend it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) Review

Director: Herbert Brenon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney played an unnerving clown before, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and, in 1928, another silent film with him playing a neurotic member of that profession was released, titled “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” Here, increasingly depressed Italian clown Tito (Lon Chaney) adopts an abandoned orphan, Simonetta (Loretta Young), only to develop romantic feelings for her over the years, and vie for her love with Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther). Ew. Not cool, Lon Chaney, not cool.

The relationship between Chaney’s character and his adoptive daughter is deliberately creepy, and not viewed as something typical for the 1920s or whatever. He knows his feelings are wrong, and it’s tearing him apart. Chaney, as you would expect, does an ace job playing a performer who hides his pain while entertaining countless people while on stage.

The romantic triangle is a bit too back-and-forth-y, despite being in a movie with a runtime of only seventy-three minutes. Still, pacing is not much of an issue. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this movie, the surviving prints of it are missing a reel, but this isn’t noticeable. Another notable thing about this picture is a stunt or two performed by acrobat Alfred Adeline that I won’t spoil the details of here.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh probably needed a bit more of a sinister conclusion than what it ended up with, but, as it stands now, it’s a very good flick. The Trivia page on IMDb insists that Lon Chaney considered this his favorite role, but, then again, the Trivia page for Tell It to the Marines (1926), says that that military drama contained his favorite performance. Which page is to be believed? Regardless of which role “The Man of a Thousand Faces” preferred, both films should be watched by his fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Ace of Hearts (1921) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent 1921 drama-thriller The Ace of Hearts may have been an attempt to recapture some of the magic from The Penalty (1920), another crime film that also starred Lon Chaney, was directed by Wallace Worsley, and was based on a work by pulp novelist Gouverneur Morris. There may be a reason why this movie isn’t as fondly remembered as The Penalty, but it’s still worth a watch. The story is about a secret society, of which Farallone (Lon Chaney) is a member, that is plotting the killing of a wealthy individual, and the assassin being chosen by the random dealing of cards (ace of hearts gets to carry out the mission).

The Ace of Hearts‘ biggest strength is its atmospheric nature, with many scenes having a strong nocturnal energy. The image of Lon Chaney waiting outside of your apartment window in a nighttime rainstorm is powerful. The picture feels pretty padded-out, even with a running time of only seventy-five minutes, but the feature does build up to a successful climax, even if it has some unsure footing along the way.

This film does have a prominent romantic triangle in it that feels a little silly, but it’s largely forgiven by the time the flick ends. You see, the backroom secret society has one female member – Lilith (Leatrice Joy) – and two of the potential assassins – Farallone and Forrest (John Bowers) – are madly in love her, both wanting a chance to be the hitman in order to show their devotion to “the Cause.” Farallone – Lon Chaney’s character – mostly just stands around looking glum in a ridiculous hairdo.

The Ace of Hearts may not hold up that well when compared to a couple of Lon Chaney’s other movies, like West of Zanzibar (1928) or the aforementioned The Penalty, but, despite an occasionally slow pace, it should have enough merits to make it worth tracking down for fans of “The Man with a Thousand Faces.” It has an interesting story with a nice payoff. Check out the audacious main title sequence, which simply shows the ace of hearts playing card (instead of text) when the title should be shown.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Penalty (1920) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1920 crime-drama The Penalty was the breakout film for iconic movie star Lon Chaney. A San Francisco gangster named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated after an accident as a child, plots his revenge on the physician – Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) – who mistakenly robbed him of his legs and against the city of San Francisco as a whole. It’s not a horror movie, like some say, but rather a grotesque drama, the kind that Chaney seemed to specialize in.

In order to play a double-amputee, Lon Chaney wore a special harness, allowing him to walk on his knees. The effect is virtually flawless, although the strain of the performance apparently damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his life. With this knowledge, it makes every second that Blizzard (Chaney’s character) appears onscreen feel painful. This is definitely his show, but it has the interesting touch of having a female undercover agent – Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) – try to infiltrate his den of sin to bring it down.

As wonderfully pulpy and sinister as The Penalty is, it is slightly marred by a weird, anti-climactic ending. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s certainly not horrible, but it is bizarre and causes the picture to fail to live up to all of its potential. Given that the feature was released during the First Red Scare, there is some minor xenophobic content (where foreigners are not to be trusted), but it doesn’t have much of an impact on my overall impression of the work.

Sent to theaters at the beginning of the 1920s, this silent film has aged surprisingly well. It’s actually quite excellent. Not everything about it makes sense, but its intimidating mood, reasonably concise story, and fantastic performance from Lon Chaney do not lie. One of the first mobster movies, it still may be one of the better ones.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1930) Review

Director: Jack Conway

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 72 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Gather ’round, ladies and gentlemen, and hear Lon Chaney in his only role in a talking motion picture! Yes, Chaney made only one sound movie before tragically passing away from throat cancer at forty-seven. This is a remake of the 1925 film of the same title, so the plot may sound familiar: cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Ivan Linow), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Lila Lee) team up to plan some heists out of a pet shop.

This one is several minutes shorter than the silent original, so it chugs along at a slightly faster pace. The physical action is perhaps a tad more dynamic here, and, while it still has a courtroom finale, this one’s a hair more interesting. That being said, it’s very similar to the 1925 feature, so contrasting the two films isn’t easy.

The most notable flaw with this version of the story is that Harry Earles’ dialogue is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe silent movie-style intertitles were needed? Nah, I’m just kidding about that. The pacing probably could’ve been better, but, as it stands now, it’s an improvement over the original. It’s a preposterous, little movie, but it knows that it’s a little crazy.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the enforcement of the Production Code, this nifty, slightly twisted crime-thriller is recommended for Lon Chaney fanatics…and not just because it was his last feature. It feels more streamlined than the 1925 silent film that it’s a remake of and the ludicrous premise is enough to keep it afloat. So, check out The Unholy Three if you ever get the chance.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1925) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent, 1925 version of The Unholy Three could be seen as director Tod Browning’s warm-up for Freaks (1932). Here, four (yes, four) criminals – cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) – join forces to commit a series of robberies out of a pet shop. Now, how do you like that for a plot?!?

As one might expect after reading that synopsis, this flick can get pretty absurd at times. I mean, this quartet of outlaws even own a killer ape. It’s not quite a comedy, but this crime-drama doesn’t demand that you take it too seriously. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its silly premise. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Harry Earles’ character, dressed as a baby, chomping a cigar.

The major downside of the silent version of The Unholy Three is that it ends with a courtroom finale. I’m generally not a fan of those sorts of conclusions, and this is no exception. It wasn’t exactly a fast-paced picture to begin with, and now we have to endure a bunch of people talking before a judge? Oh well, it doesn’t hurt the overall film too much.

It’s not perfect, but this oddity might be worth watching for fans of Lon Chaney or those looking for the weirder side of silent cinema. Does the idea of this movie appeal to you, but you’re apprehensive about viewing a film without sound? Don’t fret! Five years after it was made, a sound remake of the same title (also starring Chaney) was sent to theaters.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mr. Wu (1927) Review

Director: William Nigh

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” being famous for the remarkably different-looking characters he played over the course of his career. One of his more notable visual transformations took place in the 1927 silent melodrama Mr. Wu, where he plays not one, but two, Chinese characters (the titular figure and that person’s aging grandfather). The story of the film is concerned with authoritarian Chinese parent Wu (Lon Chaney) who discovers that his only child, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée), is secretly dating a White man, Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes).

Part of Mr. Wu deals with the culture clash between the collectivistic East and the individualistic West. Being an American movie from the 1920s, the West, which prides itself on its lack of arranged marriages, comes across looking more sympathetic. The picture also involves Lon Chaney playing two roles in what is now referred to as “yellowface,” which is certainly not “politically correct” by today’s standards.

Even if one can get past the flick’s racial insensitivities, they’ll find a pretty slow-moving film. Yes, there are some nice sets, but the first two acts here can be relatively difficult to get through. There may have been some content that deserved to remain on the cutting room floor. Mercifully, things speed up for the final third, which can actually be a bit suspenseful for reasons that I won’t spoil here.

It’s cool to see a feature where Chaney plays a double role, but, unfortunately, the one of Wu’s grandfather is pretty superfluous. Mr. Wu is mostly your typical tale of lovers from two separate cultures, with the occasional act of violence thrown into the mix to keep the audience’s attention. There are certainly better Lon Chaney movies out there to spend some time with.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Mockery (1927) Review

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1927 drama Mockery isn’t actor Lon Chaney’s best film, but it is a fairly watchable one. Set during the Russian Civil War, a slow-witted peasant named Sergei (Lon Chaney) must escort a woman – Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) – across the Siberian wastelands to safety, with a love triangle just waiting to break out. This is a silent movie, but it’s told well enough that the lack of sound isn’t an issue.

This picture is mostly concerned with the class relations between the workers/peasants of Russia and the aristocracy desperately clinging to power in the face of revolution. Unfortunately, while the contrasts between the two sides take up a notable amount of screentime, the feature, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter. This is a melodrama, first and foremost, so displays of naked emotion are valued more than political/economic analysis.

The middle act of Mockery is perhaps the weakest part, but things get back on the rails for the finale. There is some action here, with plenty of soldiers running through the streets and Lon Chaney’s character – Sergei – duking it out with some goons. On the down side, Sergei does a thing or two to cause him to lose the sympathies of the audience during the third act.

As usual, Chaney’s performance cannot be faulted here. It’s just that the film surrounding him isn’t really that compelling. It’s only seventy-five minutes long, so it is manageable, but not that memorable. However, I don’t think that there’s been many easy-to-access flicks made about the Russian Civil War, despite that conflict’s horrendous bloodiness, so Mockery might scratch an itch in that regard.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Review

Director: Victor Sjöström

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 95 minutes (Blu Ray version), 71 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With star Lon Chaney showing up as a hideous-looking clown, it would be easy to mistake He Who Gets Slapped for a horror film. However, this silent movie is actually a grotesque drama (similar to other silents like The Man Who Laughs [1928] or West of Zanzibar [1928], the latter of which also stars Chaney) with strong romance elements. The story is about scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) who joins the circus as a masochistic clown after his discoveries and his wife, Marie (Ruth King), are stolen from him.

This well-made feature is not held back by the cinematic limitations of the time. It’s still an engaging and poetic picture that intrigues the audience. He Who Gets Slapped has an easily digestible runtime that varies depending on what speed the silent movie is played at. It may not be horror, but it still has an odd, creepy vibe to it. I mean, it does feature dozens of synchronized-dancing clowns, after all.

The second act of this flick does feel a little distracted at first glance. During this segment, the focus is largely shifted away from Chaney’s character and settles on the romance between circus horse-riders Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and Bezano (John Gilbert). It feels “off” at first, but by the time the work’s remarkable climax rolls around, it makes sense.

As far as silent, 1920s melodramas go, this one is very solid. With the occasional abstract touch, it is a film that fans of the silents should try to seek out. Some say that Bela Lugosi can be seen here in a small uncredited role or two. It is supposedly the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) movie to have that company’s animal mascot, Leo the Lion, appear before the feature starts. It’s certainly not the only time a lion appears in this movie!

My rating is 7 outta 10.