Professor Echo (Lon Chaney, Sr.), Tweedledee (Harry Earles) and Hercules (Victor McLaglen) are three sideshow performers who leave the circus after Tweedledee gets into a fight and all hell breaks loose at one of their performances.
Before leaving the sideshow, Mr. Echo worked as a ventriloquist, while Tweedledee was marketed as “Twenty inches! Twenty years! Twenty pounds! The Twentieth Century Curiosity!” and Hercules performed a strongman.
Desperate to make ends meet after leaving their circus gigs, the three take up work at a pet shop. Professor Echo poses as Mrs. O’Grady, the grandmother who runs the shop. Tweedledee and Echo’s girlfriend, a pickpocket named Rosie (Mae Busch), assume the roles of Mrs. O’Grady’s grandchildren. Hercules works in the shop along with Hector McDonald (Matt Moore), who suspects nothing of his odd co-workers.
The group’s new life at the pet shop soon turns into a life of crime when they begin burglarizing the homes of the shop’s wealthy patrons.
The one and only Tod Browning directs 1925’s The Unholy Three, which is based on a novel of the same name. The film was remade in 1930, with Chaney and Earles reprising their roles. The 1930 version was Chaney’s only talkie, as he passed away soon after its release.
The Unholy Three‘s basic premise of the sideshow-to-underworld transition for its central characters is intriguing, and it’s carried out in a generally very gripping manner. I enjoyed watching the film for the story and didn’t find myself getting bored or losing interest at all as it moved along. It can get pretty dark at times, and becomes more tense as it progresses.
The film’s strongest asset is not its plot, though. Instead, the performances are a major draw here.
The entire cast is wonderful, and Lon Chaney really shines in his leading role. The scenes in which he appears in drag may be comical since the audience knows just who is under that wig, dress and granny sweater, but at the same time he makes a very convincing Mrs. O’Grady. It’s easy to see how ol’ Hector and the victims of the burglaries fell for the act.
The more I watch Chaney’s films, the more I realize what a truly brilliant actor he was. I’ve never seen a film in which he has trouble capturing the viewer or holding on to that attention. He’s become a TMP favorite for very good reason!
The film is visually very nice as well. Though the photography is not as inventive as, say, He Who Gets Slapped (my favorite Chaney film, which I like to name-drop at every opportunity haha), the peppering of purple tint throughout the film is lovely.
I would recommend this one to fans of Chaney and/or Tod Browning, as well as fans of unusual crime dramas. It’s a very good film. The score: 4.5/5