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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Kongo (1932)

Director: William Cowen
Stars: Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce

Kongo is a glorious anomaly. Not only was it a remake that returned its story to its roots and did it exactly as it was intended, it was a remake of a Lon Chaney movie that surpassed the original. I'm not aware of another instance where anyone ever outdid Chaney and doubt anyone ever did but circumstances were on Walter Huston's side here, as he was working in the precode era and so had a lot more artistic freedom than Chaney did back in the silent days. The mere four years between the two versions were vast, given the changes Hollywood had gone through. It helps that Huston didn't really take Chaney's place either, Chaney took his, as Huston originated the role on Broadway in 1926 in a play by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon. The play was Kongo, while the loosely adapted 1928 screen adaptation was West of Zanzibar. By 1932, when the story was revisited under its original name, Chaney was dead and Huston was a star.

West of Zanzibar is a great film, one of a number of great films Chaney made for regular director Tod Browning and he excelled once more in the lead role of Dead Legs Phroso, but it's not quite up to the level of his many masterpieces, perhaps because some of its scenes were excised for release. Hollywood was already converting to sound in 1928, though Chaney resisted that trend fearing that the air of mystery he generated so well wouldn't translate successfully if audiences heard him, so West of Zanzibar is silent. By 1932, the staginess of the early talkies had vanished as the studios mastered the technology, and while Kongo is mostly shot in and around the jungle hut of Deadlegs Flint, it carries as authentic a feel as any jungle picture I've seen. The sets were built for Red Dust, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, but they work perfectly here too, darkest Africa never appearing quite so dark and reeking of sweat from moment one.

The switch to sound also marked the beginning of the precode era, a time of unbridled artistic freedom that lasted until the Production Code was enforced in 1934, which promptly muzzled Hollywood's output for three decades. Kongo is a prime example of what the studios could get away with within that brief period that could never have been revisited later. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone remaking this one even today, because those who would stoop to the levels of brutality it exhibits wouldn't be able to capture the underlying soul and humanity of the story. It also benefits from release at a time when parts of the world map were still marked 'unexplored' and setting stories in such exotic climes could seem entirely believable whether they had any authenticity or not. It's notable that this film never feels racist, even though it centres around a brutal white ivory trader in the heart of Africa amidst a whole host of primitive natives.
Deadlegs Flint got his nickname for a reason: he's a cripple with knife slashes over his cheeks. He has a necklace and a slight waistcoat, but underneath is nothing but sweat, which permeates this film so palpably that it's almost a member of the cast. Scantily clad Lupe Velez is so slippery that it's astounding that her outfit doesn't fall off. Flint is wheelchair bound but he lives in attic space accessible only by climbing a rope. He carries a whip to back up his statement that 'I'm the law here.' He has a pet monkey that sits on his lap and sleeps with him. He has a hat with a skull on top of it to make him appear important to the natives. They all glisten with sweat too, topless black men who carry blazing torches and wear headdresses, war paint and necklaces of teeth. Their leader is a wizened cripple whom they carry about. Flint does magic tricks with fire to impress them, when sugar cubes aren't enough, and to reassert his dominance.

I mention all this detail because it provides a texture that is unmatched in cinema, engrossingly exotic. The only thing as omnipresent as the sweat is the sound of the drums. This is nowhere we've seen before, intoxicating swamp country with alligators and salamanders and a way of life we can only imagine. Perhaps most importantly, Flint has become part of this world, not just by being tough enough to survive in it, as Gable and Harlow were in Red Dust, but by becoming an intrinsic part of the scenery. He's not just Deadlegs Flint, he's Big Boss Flint and King Flint. He's infiltrated himself into the mythology of the natives. Just as Flint was surely influenced by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, so the film itself was surely influenced by the Congo river and the descriptions Conrad used in his story. One I don't remember precisely compared jungle humidity to walking through an emptied fishtank. That returns to me every time I watch Kongo.

As much as he reeks of sweat, Flint also reeks of vengeance. He burns for revenge against 'the man who stole my wife, the man who kicked my spine in, the man who sneered.' He measures the passage of time only against what Gregg Whitehall did to him and what he'll do to redress the balance. Everything is part of his plan: his presence here in the jungle, his elevation to god status over the superstitious natives, the eighty mile juju circle he's enforced around him that no other trader can enter without his permission. Thus has he existed for so long with little white company: only a pair of assistants, the cowardly Cookie Harris and a big tattooed brute called Hogan, and a sex slave maid named Tula, Lupe Velez infinitely more exotic here than she ever was as the Mexican Spitfire. Having already proven his brutality in many ways, this plan proves his diabolical patience.

You see, Whitehall has a daughter, who grew up in a convent, and it's through her that he plans to get to her father. Viewers of precodes generally tend to be shocked, not at the content of the films which is tame compared to today, but that such content could be in films so old. Used only to code-era Hollywood films, precodes are glimpses into a time when the cinematic rules they're used to simply didn't apply. Kongo is a film that makes precode fans gasp with astonishment, as Deadlegs Flint descends to depths that seem utterly out of place in black and white yet are all the more powerful for it. So Flint has Hogan kidnap Ann Whitehall from the convent to establish instead in a Zanzibar brothel. After a time, he has her brought into the juju circle, where he has her eat scraps from the floor and drink tainted water. He keeps her drunk and bedraggled. When she comes down with malignant black fever, he gives her brandy to feed her delirium.
This is all astounding to watch, all the more because Ann Whitehall is played by Virginia Bruce, an elegant classic Hollywood leading lady, one of the original Goldwyn Girls who had just wed silent legend John Gilbert. Seeing her tormented and degraded here is as shocking as realising that the Jennifer Connolly doing lesbian sex shows in Requiem for a Dream is the same Jennifer Connolly that made Labyrinth. They reach the same depths, as when Ann Whitehall talks back to Flint, he throws her in a room and has Hogan rape her, but the realisation that this is 1932 is world shaking. Early hints at Flint's brutality, such as when he shoots a native for overhearing a conversation then has him hung up as a warning to all blacks, aren't preparation enough. Yet it all plays consistently with the tone of the film. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Flint has found a kinship with the jungle and descended into a savage and aggressive brutality.

The natives are superstitious souls who Flint feeds with cheap carnival tricks, like decapitating Tula and having her severed head speak, but they're already one with the jungle setting. White men don't manage so well unless they embrace that the way Flint and Tula have. When another white man arrives, twitching and swaying like he has an army of ants all over him, we see what happens if they fight it. He's both a doctor and a dope addict. 'My name's Kingsland and I'm a mess,' is his introduction. Flint has him work on his crippled legs to relieve his pain in return for byang root, the drug that he's addicted to, but Ann brings him out of that dependence. He finds purpose in her salvation, but this story doesn't let anything be that simple. Tula hooks him again with her seductive powers and when he stops Flint twisting her tongue with wire in punishment, Flint cuts him, ties him up and dumps him in the swamp for the leeches to bleed clean.

And so the story runs until the blisteringly brutal ending, which I won't spoil but is as much a kick in the gut as any twist in any movie. The ramifications of it are soul destroying and yet there's a chance for as much redemption as anyone who's seen a Lon Chaney story arc can expect. It all fits the same themes of cruelty and sacrifice that Chaney mined so well and so often that it isn't surprising to watch him tell the same story in West of Zanzibar, but Walter Huston owns the role. Watching him ratchet up the intensity level to degrees that Chaney never considered, I'm always stunned at what he achieved here, but he was a star in the precode days for a reason, deep and versatile in his explorations of morality. He's vibrant, brutal, driven. When Kingsland operates on him without anaesthetic, he just lies there and chomps his cigar. When Ann asks him, 'How did the Almighty ever allow a man like you on this earth?' he's already been led him to face that too.

He has able support, not only from Velez and Bruce, but from Conrad Nagel as Dr Kingsland, who deliberately and appropriately overacts when he's stoned. The overdone acting fits the material in ways that is rarely the case. Bruce overacts too, but she's playing a woman deliberately driven to the depths who nonetheless manages to keep something human inside and must concentrate to keep it there. Velez is purest exotica, a gorgeous vision of a primitive beast, as are the natives whose voodoo religion expects them to burn widows alive as the moon rises. Such atmosphere is rare and in my opinion, has never been matched. The textures are such that we feel the rain, the swamp, the sweat, the addiction, the death drums, the masks, the animal magnetism, even the pidgin English. Cinema never got closer to the worlds that Robert E Howard conjured up for the pulps and even the precodes outdid this perhaps only with Freaks. Even then it's a close call.

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