Tod Browning

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Raymond Durgnat

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[Despite] its moments of deliberate, grotesque shock, [Freaks] is shot through with—not just compassion, but something higher; respect. Tod Browning shows us a dwarf couple first—and for a few seconds the first 'big person' whom we see seems the deformed one.

The film has sufficient humanity to permit itself a tragicomic tone, about the emotional conflicts of the half-man, half-woman, resembling some anatomical apotheosis of the transvestite theme in Psycho. There is even some comic relief—it's true that at the press-show on one actually laughed, but the mood is there. When one Siamese twin gets pinched her sister feels it too, which raises interesting speculations as to the in-law's responses to her yokefellow's wedding-night.

Let's make no mistake: an uncompromising film in a censor-free society would have gone nearer the knuckle in evoking, warmly, the psychological consequences of this double-menage, and, in principle, the same criticism applies to other points in the film. It hints at the tragic solitude of some of these freaks, but never deeply evokes it, and in this nonchalance one can perhaps see the cloven hoof of MGM '30s commercialism—at least in intention. But the tragic aspect is a fairly obvious one, and the nonchalance has a grotesqueness of its own; it these freaks are no lonelier than we are, then we perhaps are just as much freaks as they are. After a first viewing, I would hazard a guess that Freaks is one of those films which, like so many of Buñuel's, grows at each viewing. At first its very real shock-value seems to mingle with moments which seem shallow, but by the end of the film one begins to catch their mood, a calm, cold combination of guignol and eerily matter-of-fact.

The acting has occasionally dated a little, as in Hercules' and Cleopatra's rowdier moments, otherwise Browning's direction, very different from his Dracula Gothicisms, is extremely slick and smooth.

The aftermath to the wedding-breakfast where freaks with flick-knives crawl through mud and rain to despatch the wounded strong man is really obscene yet, paradoxically, the violence of the revenge is an assertion of their human dignity. The 'blackness' of this moral is one more Buñuelesque trait in a film which at every turn evokes the name of Buñuel, in haunting subtlety as well as downright shock. (p. 23)

Raymond Durgnat, "Raymond Durgnat Sees Beauty in Deformity …" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1963; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 9, No. 11, August, 1963, pp. 22-3.

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