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Review: The Unholy Three

Caught a screening of The Unholy Three at Metrograph. It’s been a while since I sat down and watched a silent movie, and while this is far from the best example of the medium I’ve encountered, I’d certainly count it among the most fun.

Starring the legendary Lon Chaney and many of the same carnival celebrities with whom director Tod Browning would later collaborate on Freaks, the surprisingly convoluted plot revolves around a trio of sideshow attractions—a dwarf, a strongman, and a ventriloquist (an ironic profession for a character in a film that lacks audible dialogue, I know; just go with it)—that decide to quit the circus and become master jewel thieves, masquerading a family of pet shop proprietors by day and robbing their customers blind by night. Despite some initial success, however, their dastardly enterprise quickly unravels, thanks to greed, petty squabbling, and jealousy concerning the affections of a lovely pickpocket named Rosie O’Grady (no relation).

Chaney forgoes his usual heavy makeup (though he does convincingly disguise himself as a feeble old granny), delivering a compelling, nuanced performance as the crook with a conscience. His emotional authenticity—combined with the gorgeous visuals (clearly inspired by German Expressionism), wry sense of humor (“If you don’t smoke, you’ll grow up to be just like him,” says a mother to her son immediately before the muscular gentleman in question lights up a cigarette), and live musical accompaniment by Gary Lucas—made The Unholy Three a cinematic experience I won’t soon forget.

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