If ever an actor and a director shared the same wavelength, it was Lon Chaney and Tod Browning, shown above in a publicity still from “The Road to Mandalay.” But there are perhaps some distinctions to be made, even within their tight collaboration, focused on themes of sado-masochism and physical difference. Although both men are inextricably bound to the horror genre, they seemed to share a suspicion of the supernatural and the uncanny, preferring instead to focus on the horrors of human nature, particularly in its capacity to inflict and absorb pain in the name of love. But where Chaney seemed to sympathize with his characters as human beings whose emotions and appearances had been deformed by experience, Browning seemed more intrigued by degradation for its own sake, as a spectacle to be consumed and relished. Some further thoughts along these lines in this week’s New York Times column, occasioned by the release or three Browning-Chaney collaborations (“The Blackbird,” “West of Zanzibar,” “Where East Is East”) and one of Chaney’s “straight” vehicles, George Hill’s “Tell It to the Marines,” in which he plays the tough drill sergeant who makes a man out of William Haines.
Folks in the New York area might be interested in a panel discussion to be held this Wednesday, June 6 at 6 pm at the Italian Cultural Institute (686 Park Avenue at 69th Street) taking off from the excellent Spaghetti Western series currently unfolding at Film Forum. I’ll be participating, along with some actual experts: Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, the co-curator of the Film Forum program; J. Hoberman, the distinguished critic; the producer and director William Lustig, who has imported several important Spaghettis for his Blue Underground label; and the great Tony Musante, the Bridgeport, Connecticut native and Northwestern University graduate who starred in one of the genre’s most powerful and politically charged achievements, Sergio Corbucci’s “The Mercenary” (1968). Admission is free but reservations are suggested, at 212-879-4242, ext. 362.