“Freaks” - Tod Browning (1932)

In an imagined pantheon of classic horror films, Freaks (1932) would certainly deserve a hallowed position.  And yet when the film was first released in 1932, it was widely criticized and had a limited distribution, making it a financial disaster [1].  Many of the early viewers in those days seem to have been put off by what was perceived as the exploitative subject matter of the film, which concerns deformed people who are exhibited as freaks as part of a traveling circus.  And even today, some viewers dismiss the film Freaks as merely a cheap exploitation exhibition showing those unfortunate people who are seriously deformed by birth defects, as was indeed the practice of traveling circus freak shows of an earlier era [2].  

The producers, however, had harbored high hopes for the success of this film.  The director of Freaks was veteran Tod Browning [3], whose previous outing, Dracula (1931),  starring Bela Lugosi, had been a huge box-office hit and is also considered to be a classic horror film.  Browning had been interested in crafting a more personal work, and he had urged his producers in the mid-1920s to secure the rights to Tod Robbins’s story "Spurs" (1923) for this purpose.  Eventually a script was developed by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon that was loosely based on Robbins’s story, and veteran Merritt B. Gerstad was secured for the cinematography.  When a 90-minute film was completed in early 1932, routine test screenings were conducted.  However, these screenings proved to be so disastrous that about one-third of the original-cut material was removed from the film, and today all we have left of the film is the 64-minute version that was given a limited commercial release [9].

Although the film proved to be a financial disaster at the time, nevertheless, more recent viewers have generally been much more sympathetic towards the film – and they have regarded the “freaks” in this film as having been presented in a humane way [3,4,5,6,7,8].  Indeed in this story, the “freaks” are the real protagonists with whom the viewers will empathize.  In fact I would agree with Andrew Sarris’s comment on this score that

“‘Freaks’ may be one of the most compassionate movies ever made.” [10]

The story of Freaks plays out over roughly three phases.  The first one introduces to the viewer the many and various figures in this tale.  The second phase covers events surrounding the memorable wedding banquet that then takes place.  And the final phase shows the dramatic consequences that ensue.
1.  A Traveling Circus and Its Performers
The opening scene shows a carnival barker summoning customers to see his freak on display.  Although the film viewer cannot see this freak, the onlookers shown in the film are clearly horrified at what they see.  We are only given the suggestion that this apparently horribly deformed figure was once a beautiful woman.  The ensuing one-hour of film is then apparently a flashback narrative covering background material on this story.

The scene now shifts to the backstage areas of a traveling circus, where the various performers are shown in random scenes of convivial social interaction.  Many of the figures shown are freaks – deformed people whose physical grotesqueness or dwarfishness is supposed to attract curious spectators.  Among the dozen or so freaks who have significant roles here are
  • Hans (played by Harry Earles), a dwarf
  • Frieda (Daisy Earles), a dwarf who loves Hans
  • the Siamese Twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), two young ladies who are conjoined at the hip
  • Schlitzie (Schlitzie), a congenial pinhead
  • Half-Woman-Half-Man (Josephine Joseph), a hermaphroditic person whose body is male on  one side and female on the other side
  • Half-Boy (Johnny Eck) – only the upper-half exists
  • the Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick)
  • the Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson)
And there are also four other performers with normal physiques who figure prominently in this story:
  • Cleopatra (played by Olga Baclanova) is a beautiful trapeze artist.
  • Hercules (Henry Victor) is the circus strongman.
  • Venus (Leila Hyams) is a comely woman who evidently performs with trained seals.
  • Phroso (Wallace Ford) is a circus clown.
But there are clear-cut differences among these four “normal” characters concerning how they treat the freaks.  Cleopatra and Hercules, like many of the other circus workers, are scornfully dismissive of the freaks.  In contrast, Venus and Phroso treat the freaks cordially as ordinary friends and colleagues – they all belong to the same team.  This contrasting treatment is a major thematic element of the story.

In this first section of the film, dwarfs Hans and Frieda are shown to be in love and becoming engaged to be married.  But Cleopatra then mockingly flirts with Hans and seduces the unsuspecting dwarf to fall in love with her, instead.  We also see Venus breaking up with the arrogant Hercules and turning her attention to Phroso.  Afterwards, Cleopatra begins flirting with Hercules.

Another interesting sequence shows the pretty Siamese Twins, Violet and Daisy, each becoming enthralled with and finally engaged to marry different men, who will somehow have to learn to deal with the conjoined situation of their spouses.
2.  The Wedding Banquet
Frieda, concerned that Cleopatra’s flirtations with Hans are only intended to make a fool of her own beloved, goes to the woman and urges her to desist from this mockery.  But while speaking to Cleopatra, Frieda inadvertently reveals that Hans is due to inherit a vast fortune in the near future.  This news gets Cleopatra’s mind working, and she afterwards reveals to her real lover, Hercules, about her murderous plans to marry Hans and get his money.

The wedding is arranged, and there follows the memorably expressionistic wedding feast for Hans and Cleopatra, with all the freaks in celebratory attendance.  During the festivities, everyone gets drunk, and while noone is looking, Cleopatra secretly pours poison into Hans’s wine drink.

Meanwhile the party revellers become increasingly exuberant, and they begin chanting a phrase welcoming Cleopatra into their community:
“Google, goggle, one of us, one of us. . .
  Google, goggle, one of us, one of us”
Cleopatra, in reaction, is horrified at the suggestion that she could ever be one of “them”.  After all, to her, they are all just odious freaks, and she angrily orders everyone to leave the party.

3.  Afterwards
Cleopatra tends to the now-seriously-ill Hans, and when he regains consciousness the next day, she apologizes for her behavior the previous night, telling him she was drunk.  But she continues to add poison to the medicine that the doctor has prescribed for Hans.  

However, Hans and the other freaks, who have been spying on Cleopatra and have witnessed her adding something to Hans’s medicine, are now suspicious.  So Hans only pretends to swallow the medicine she gives him, and he conspires with the other freaks about what they need to do.

This sets the stage for the final sequences on a dark and stormy night with the circus wagons on the move.  Hans and his freak colleagues catch Cleopatra red-handed giving the poison to Hans and confront her.  Meanwhile, Hercules, who knows that Venus is aware of his and Cleopatra’s murderous scheme, goes to Venus’s wagon with the intent to kill her.  But Phroso and other freaks rush to Venus’s defense.  Can justice be served?  Can the defenseless be saved?

Of course, the freaks are very limited in terms of any physical prowess, especially when compared to Hercules.  But we are shown that they can work together as a team, and as I mentioned, their inclusive sense of belonging (to be “one of us”) is a major theme of this story and plays an important role here.  What transpires at this point is highly dramatic as the fiercely loyal freaks get the upper-hand.

The story now shifts back to “the present”, with the carnival barker still touting his special freak on display.  Only on this occasion, the camera shows the barker’s freak to the viewer, revealing it to be a grotesquely deformed Cleopatra.  She now looks like a strange, oversized duck and has become “one of them”.

The final scene is something of a coda, and it shows Hans having inherited his fortune and living solemnly alone in a luxurious mansion.  He gets a surprise visit from friends Venus, Phroso, and Frieda, and this serves to bring about a reconciliation between Hans and Frieda, which enables the film to end on a more happy note.

Now from this overall account of the film you might wonder what is it that makes Freaks a horror film.  True, there are attempted murders and acts of revenge, but does the film truly evoke in the empathetic viewer a horrifying fear of the unknown?  Yes, definitely.  Something ultimately unfathomable to us has imposed freakish forms on these innocent circus freaks, which has led the rest of the world to reject their humanity.  So ordinary people are customarily driven to see these freaks as monsters with likely disturbing characteristics.  But as the story unfolds, the viewer gradually sees that it is the freaks who are psychologically “normal” and humane.  In fact many of them can be seen to be childlike and spontaneously loving towards others.  On the other hand, Cleopatra and Hercules, who are physically attractive and thereby socially confident, are not normal on the inside; they are (psychologically) monstrous.

Note that for most of the film, our freaks are the relentlessly oppressed ones; but towards the end, the freaks rally together to take revenge on their oppressors.  And yet the 64-minute version we have today does not, thankfully, stand as a typical revenge film.  That is because, perhaps accidentally due to the negative reactions from pre-screening audiences and threats of censorship, much of the material ultimately excised from the original 90-minute cut was concerned with vivid acts of vengeance taken on Cleopatra and Hercules [11].  What remained was a film whose overall tone was more humane and more sympathetic towards the freaks.

So what makes this film a masterpiece?  It arises from the fact that the viewer watching the film will empathize with some characters at different times and in different ways, and thereby see them from multiple, contrasting perspectives.  They will see the freaks, for example, sometimes from the perspectives of their own freak colleagues and sometimes from the perspectives of the freaks’ antagonists, Cleopatra and Hercules.  From each side – whether from Cleopatra’s or that of the freaks – the “other” comes to be seen, with horror, as something of a macabre menace.  And the viewer, too, sees both of these horrifying perspectives, sometimes at the same time.  This multiplex view of threatening agency is what makes the film a compelling work of art.  

  1. Edward Brophy and Mat Mchugh, “Freaks”, Variety, (12 July 1932).   
  2. “Freak show”, Wikipedia, (19 September 2020).  
  3. Alfred Eaker, “TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE”, Alfred Eaker, (26 January 2016).   
  4. Gary Morris and Mark A. Vieira, “Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932): Production Notes and Analysis”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 April 2001).   
  5. Brian Koller, “filmsgraded.com: Freaks (1932) Grade: 79/100", FilmsGraded”, (18 February 2018).   
  6. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Freaks (1932)”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  7. Ed Gonzalez, “Review: Tod Browning’s Freaks”, Slant Magazine, (29 October 2003).   
  8. Gary Giddins, “Still a Pulp Tour de Force”, The New York Sun, (31 August  2004).   
  9. “Freaks (1932 film)”, Release, Wikipedia, (2 October 2020).    
  10. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), p. 229. 
  11. “Freaks (1932 film)”, Censorship, “Wikipedia”, (2 October 2020).   

Tod Browning

Films of Tod Browning:

“The Conversation” - Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a more contemplative work than his great blockbusters, The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), but it is
in no way inferior.  Written, directed, and produced by Coppola, The Conversation takes a thoughtful look at how the nature of narrative profoundly structures and governs our very conscious existence [1,2].  It tells the story of a man who has surreptitiously recorded an intimate conversation, and who is then troubled by the mysterious narrative implications of what he has recorded.  In this respect the film bears close comparison to two other films with similar themes – Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) [3] and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981).  Indeed, Coppola acknowledged from the outset that Antonioni's Blow-Up was a key inspiration and influence on his development of The Conversation.  

However, there are some fundamental differences between how narrative affects the main characters in the two films.  In Blow-Up, the protagonist Thomas, who is a photographer, is affected by the narrative implications of visual images, while the protagonist in The Conversation, Harry Caul, is occupied by the narrative suggestions in sound recordings.  Moreover, Thomas, in Blow-Up, finds himself constantly distracted and seduced by the suggestive narrative possibilities he encounters; whereas Harry Caul, in The Conversation, steadfastly avoids getting himself involved in any external narratives, as if all narratives involving other people are threats to his autonomy and identity.

Despite these contrasts, both films are great, and The Conversation received many plaudits from top critics [4,5,6,7,8,9,10].  In addition, the film won the Best Film award (the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and it was also named Best Film by the National Board of Review.  Moreover, The Conversation was also nominated for 3 U.S. Oscars, including one for Best Film (losing out on that one only to Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II, which was released in the same year).  

With respect to the general topic of how narrative underlies our understanding of reality, it may be useful to quote some of my own earlier commentary on the topic [3]:

Narrative form is fundamental to how we understand the temporality of the world [1,2].  We tell stories about what we see, and we learn more about the world around us from others’ stories that we hear or read.  We even understand ourselves in terms of the stories that we tell and remember about ourselves. Although we may store lots of information about the world in various structured formats, at a primordial level this information was originally gathered in terms of innumerable narratives that serve to structure the lives of all of us. These stories are co-created by the participants, so apart from purely fictive creations, the stories are not under the exclusive control of the person who tells the story.  This is what make narrative construction fascinating: we are constructing a plausible story – one that “makes sense” – out of the material that we have experienced.  In the stories are various environmental conditions along with (perhaps numerous) goal-oriented causal agents, which often include ourselves among the players.

In The Conversation, the story’s protagonist, Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman), is a private surveillance expert who secretly records conversations of people who are of interest to his clients.  Caul is not interested in the potentially damning narratives that could be constructed from what he records – that is something he leaves to his clients.  Caul is only interested in the technical quality of his recordings, which because they are often obtained from a safe distance and under noisy conditions, he must ensure have content that  is comprehensible to his suspicious clients.  Indeed, in Caul’s profession, it behooves one to keep his lips sealed about what is under surveillance.  So Caul just prides himself on being an expert technician, and he is reputed to be one of the best in the business.

The story of the film passes through three general phases that represent rough stages in both Caul’s understanding of a surveillance case he is working on and also stages in the progressive revelation to the viewer of just who Caul is.

1.  A Sophisticated Surveillance Job
The film opens with a spectacular 3-minute, overhead moving-camera shot showing Caul’s crew spying on a young couple walking around San Francisco’s crowded Union Square.  Caul has a remote camera and three separate recording devices tracking the couple, Ann (played by Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), as they chat to themselves while walking in the square.  

Later when Caul goes home and opens the triple-locked door to his own flat, we get to see how secretive and a loner Caul is.  Because he evidently treasures his own privacy, he is alarmed to discover that his landlady has a key to his flat, and she even knows that today is his birthday.  At home, Caul just likes to sit alone in his room playing his saxophone – not on his own, but to accompany a phonograph record.  

When he goes to visit his mistress Amy (Teri Garr), he sneaks in to her apartment, and she becomes so frustrated with his withdrawn, paranoid reticence that she announces she is breaking with him.  Caul then just glumly departs without a word.

Then Caul goes to the large corporate office of his wealthy client who has commissioned his latest surveillance operation.  The man is just known as the “Director” and is not in at the moment, but the Director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), tells him that the contracted tapes can be handed over to him.  Caul, however, refuses and insists he will only give the tapes personally to the Director.  As Caul is leaving the building, he separately sees Mark and Ann in the corridors, so now he knows that his two surveillance targets are employees of the Director’s company.

Later we see Caul working with his assistant Stan (John Cazale) in his sound editing lab, which is located in a caged area of an upper floor in an abandoned warehouse.  Stan is raucously curious about the tapes they are editing (they are attempting to combine the three recordings into one refined tape), but Caul tells him to shut up and just work.  Caul tells Stan he should not be interested in content, only in sound quality.  But after Stan leaves in a huff, Caul manages to refine one previously obscured piece of the surveilled conversation so that he can make out what was said – “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”

So little by little, and against Caul’s inclinations, some pieces of the narrative puzzle of the surveilled targets are starting to fall into place.  In addition we also learn at the end of this section that Caul is a devout Catholic, and he still has guilt feelings from the memory of one of his past jobs that ultimately ended up later with the murders of the three people he had spied on.  Since as a religious man, Caul believes that God is always watching, he doesn’t want to do anything now that will add further to his guilt.

2.  The Surveillance Convention
Now a commercial convention for professional surveillance practitioners opens in the city, and this introduces some opportunities for the reclusive Caul to open up and have some social interactions.  Caul attends it, and as he wanders among the display booths on offer, he is quietly pleased to be recognized by some people as a famous surveillance operative.  One admirer is an envious surveillance rival of Caul’s, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), from Chicago, who sings Caul’s praises to anyone in listening distance.  But Caul is somewhat unsettled to see Martin Stett in attendance and also to learn that his employee Stan has left him and is now working for Moran.

Nevertheless, Caul is sufficiently buoyed by the activities at the convention to invite his admirers and colleagues to a private get-together at his lab that evening.  There he meets and flirts with another woman, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), who has been working for Moran.  When Caul has a tender moment alone with her he confides to her some of his personal concerns.  But he is quickly alarmed to discover that the prankish Moran had planted a small recording device on him and had recorded Caul’s conversation with Meredith, which is then played back to everyone else’s mirthful delight.  So Moran has made a mockery of Caul’s precious privacy.  Angrily, Caul orders everyone to leave, although Meredith lingers.

That night Caul beds down with Meredith, but when he wakes up in the morning, he sees she is gone, and he realizes that she slept with him only so she could steal his secret tape he has worked on.  However, Caul soon gets a call from Stett telling him that the Director now has possession of the tape, and that Caul can come over and collect his fee.

During this section of the film, Caul has been tentatively opening up to people, and even though he was burned in that respect, he is starting to have concerns about some other people besides himself, such as Amy and Ann.  With respect to Ann in particular, he remembers the part of the recorded tape that said, “he’d kill us if he got the chance”, and another recorded part mentioning an intended secret meeting of Mark and Ann in room 773 of a particular hotel on the weekend.  So Caul worries that once the Director hears the tape, he may arrange to have the couple killed in that room.  Caul even has a dream of his meeting Ann and confiding to her some private details of his severely health-troubled childhood.  

Caul at this point is now worrying seriously about Ann, and the narrative he is constructing about her is very disturbing to him.

3.  Unraveling the Narrative

Caul goes to the corporate office and finally meets the Director (Robert Duvall), who sullenly turns over to him his fee, $15,000 in cash. While in the office, Caul also notices a domestic picture of his surveillance target Ann, revealing to him that she is the Director’s wife.

So now Caul needs to take action.  He goes to the given hotel on the day of the meeting and gets a room next to 773.  There he does some professional sound eavesdropping on the room next door.  Soon he is extemely disturbed to hear the sounds of an argument and then of physical violence.  When he later manages to pull himself together, he goes and cracks the doorlock to room 773 and enters.  Everything now looks tidy in the room, showing no signs of it previous occupation.  But when he flushes the bathroom toilet and blood comes out, he freaks out.  Something horrible must have happened to Ann, and they’re trying to cover it up.

Caul rushes to the Director’s office, but he is barred from entry.  Out on the street, he sees Ann perfectly okay sitting in a parked limo.  He then soon reads a newspaper headline reporting that the Director has died in an auto accident.  Thus the narrative about Ann that Caul had constructed in his imagination was all wrong.  Something horrible had happened in room 773, but not what he had imagined.  Evidently Caul had misinterpreted or not noticed the verbal stress in the phrase “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”

In the end Caul gets a call warning him that “they” will always be watching him, and he is left to live in a dystopian world of total paranoia.  His knowledge of surveillance techniques makes him even more suspicious of snooping devices potentially lurking everywhere in his apartment, and this makes him more paranoid than ever, as he tears up his apartment in search of bugs.  With noone he can trust and now no possible privacy whatsoever, he can only curl up alone in his shell with his saxophone.

Of course all this was filmed more than forty-five years ago, and we now live in a world where ubiquitous surveillance technology is making privacy more and more of a hopeless dream.  In fact, it seems to be the goal of the Chinese government to record what all their citizens are doing at all times [11].  So the issues of privacy and identity are now more pressing than they have ever been.

We must remember that all personal identities in this samsara world are based on the narratives that have been constructed out of evidence from observations [12].  But we intuitively feel that these narrative constructions can never really capture the true essence of who a person is.  In fact, we feel that we actually have different identities depending on the differing social and physical environments we find ourselves in.  That is why we feel the need to preserve our own privacy and have some control over what we reveal about ourselves to others, depending on the circumstances.  

Harry Caul, working, himself, in the surveillance business, seems to have had an instinctive awareness of how observational evidence could be misconstrued to form a false narrative about someone.  That is presumably why he didn’t want to reveal anything about himself and was generally paranoid.  Thus it is ironic that in this film, Caul was guilty of the same false-narrative construction error that he feared from others.  

So even though Harry Caul was a paranoid misfit, we can basically understand his fears and feel for him.  And that is because today,  forty-six years after The Conversation was made, we have an even greater apprehension that soon we, too, may be facing Caul’s dystopian surveillance world that is so fascinatingly depicted in this film.


  1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  2. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Blow-Up’ - Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)”, The Film Sufi, (14 August 2014).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “The Conversation”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1974).   
  5. Roger Ebert, “The Conversation”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (4 February 2001).   
  6. Andrew Sarris, “Postscript from Cannes”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (6 June 1974).    
  7. Andrew Sarris, “Who Wants Privacy?”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (13 June 1974).   
  8. Andrew Sarris, “Sexophobes and Saxophones”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (20 June 1974).   
  9. Judith Crist, “All That Money Can’t Buy”, New York Magazine, (8 April 1974).   
  10. Brenda Austin-Smith, “The Conversation”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2001).   
  11. “Mass surveillance in China”, Wikipedia, (27 September 2020).   
  12. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Helen Tworkov, In Love with the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying, Bluebird, (2019). 

Francis Ford Coppola

Films of Francis Ford Coppola: