Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

Advertisements

Detour (1945)

Detour – 1945

Director – Edgar Ulmer

Starring – Tom Neal, and Ann Savage

Most movies have a fairly common structure.  Introduce main character, introduce obstacle, main character struggles, main character overcomes obstacle, main character succeeds, lesson learned.  Now these steps can be repeated over and over again as needed, but generally this is the standard flow that a linear movie follows.  There is, however, always an exception to the rule that eschews this set up in favor of either of two scenarios.  The first, is that nothing happens to the main character, and they live happily ever after.  Boring.  The second is that everything possible happens to the main character.  They are so weighed down with the overwhelming  hopeless circumstances that they may not ever recover, and there is no happily ever after stage in that equation.  Detour resides in this second, depressing as hell movie category.

Everything starts out fairly well for Al Roberts (Tom Neal), he’s young, he has a job that he loves, and he has his best girl by his side.  Pretty quickly though, things begin to tarnish for him.  His girl wants to take a break from their relationship and move out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of being in the movies.  Distraught, Al plans to follow her, win her back and marry her.  So it is about this point in your standard movie following my previously outlined formula that our hero would struggle, and endeavor against all odds to do just that.  He may run into trouble along the way, but with pluck and ingenuity fueled by this goal, he’ll no doubt find a way.  So that is exactly what Al sets out to do, so far so good.

So he starts hitchhiking across the country towards LA, and towards his dreams of happiness and the future.  Of course the problems start right away, but that’s to be expected, right?  Challenge gives way to frustration, and eventually to desperation as one problem turns quickly into many.  Al is picked up by a shady gambler, Charles Haskell, who is also on his way to Los Angeles, but the weather changes, things go wrong, and the man ends up dead, accidentally maybe, but dead none-the-less.  Afraid of blame and retribution from the police, Al steals the mans identity and becomes Charles Haskell Jr.  At this point, things go from bad to worse, not only for the character, but also for the audience who is stuck watching him make the dumbest decisions that he possibly can.

In an attempt to appear normal, and change his luck for the better, Al decides to pick up a hitchhiker himself.  Enter, Vera (the very appropriately named Ann Savage).  Distrusting, brash, opportunistic, with a little touch of crazy, that would appropriately describe, Vera.  Oh and one other thing, Vera knows that Al isn’t who he says he is.  Much as I might like to elaborate, to do so would give away too much of the plot.  Needless to say the situation goes from bad to worse.  What started as simple, easily explained, accidental death, continues to spiral downward along a path of deception, greed, and desperation.

This bat-shit crazy pair of travel companions simultaneously need, and can’t wait to be rid of the other.  It’s nearly excruciating watching them make worse and worse decisions, swinging them ever closer to the final reel of the film (which by the way you can see their fate coming from a mile off).

Strangely, and tragically enough, this events of this film (Success, murder, money, double crossings, etc…) were mirrored, in a way, in Tom Neal’s (Al) real life.  Violence led to his being black-balled from Hollywood, causing him to take up landscaping work, and he ended up serving 6 years of a 7 year sentence after being convicted of manslaughter in the murder of his wife.  This knowledge of what has become of our main actor sort of colors the impact of the film, making it seem even darker, which is quite a feat considering how dark it is already.

This film, while interesting and definitely unique, is not nearly as engaging and warm as other studio system films of the same era, and as a result seems out-of-place.  Bleaker than other, similarly plotted movies, this film seemed like it was trying to alienate and shock audiences of the day much in the same way a movie like “Kids” did in the early nineties, or anything that Lars Von Trier has ever done ever.  Detour, like the film “Peeping Tom” fifteen years later, seemed to be a film that went to a point that audiences weren’t ready to go just yet.  Themes like this would later be explored and realized more fully and successfully in films of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  At that point the glow of a war winning, wholesome Americana was just wearing off and we were ready to have doubt, fear, and loathing creep in again.

“Bitch is crrraazy” – Ashley