Alonzo is an armless knife thrower and gun shooter for a circus---or so he appears. He is actually a burglar with his arms intact. He and his accomplice, Cojo (a little person), are hiding from the police, and Alonzo views his disguise as perfect, especially since it keeps from view an unusual deformity of his left hand that would immediately give him away as the burglar. Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner, is the target in his act. Although Alonzo is in love with her, Nanon's father despises him. Nanon is attracted to Malabar, the circus strong man, but she is also repulsed by his uninhibited sexual advances and desire to touch and hold her. Apparently her phobia extends to the touch of any man. Alonzo feeds her fears in the hopes that Nanon will fall in love with him since he is "armless." Because Zanzi discovers Alonzo really has arms, Alonzo kills him, but Nanon witnesses the killing without seeing Alonzo's face; however, she does see the telltale deformity of his left hand. ... Written by
Patrick Robbins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
For many years this film only existed in murky 9.5mm dupes on the black market. In March 1973, at a screening of this film at George Eastman House, archivist James Card said that Henri Langlois and his staff at the Cinematheque Francais discovered a copy of it in 1968 among other miscellaneous cans of film marked "l'inconnu" (films "unknown" due to missing titles, etc.). See more »
When Alonzo and Cojo are drinking wine, the glass suddenly fills between shots. See more »
A thrill if you can look the other way now and then--Crawford comes alive
The Unknown (1927)
We can see The Unknown today and say, wow, look at the young Joan Crawford. And she does help make this movie come alive, more than even Lon Chaney, who was the big draw for audiences in 1927. Crawford's spark (inspired by Chaney, by her own account), and her character's phobia of men's hands (which she explains quite reasonably, having been groped too many times against her will) make her curious and very sympathetic. She's terrific to watch, and the metaphor of abuse against women is not lost on anyone paying attention.
But Crawford was essentially unknown back then, and the movie depended on the name, and the high dramatics, of Chaney and the other lead male, the charming, somewhat overly chipper strong man in this huge sideshow of a movie. Both are good enough in their roles, Chaney pulling out all the stops in a performance that might be bravura or might just be virtuosic indulgence, probably a bit of both.
And the movie depends on the story itself, the plot, the strange and gruesome series of events, which are gripping at times even if you know what's coming all too well. For viewers then as much as now, there is also the whole milieu, director Tod Browning's leaning to the macabre and the small time circus. This will see a more amazing fruition five years alter in Freaks, shortly after his very successful Dracula (with its self-sustaining sideshow of bizarre, legendary types). But here we have Browning at the end of the silent era, pushing gestures and expressions outward in the place of sound. It's a bit strained, and with the sensational plot, the whole movie lacks subtlety and depth.
What it doesn't lack is high drama, though, and a few surprises. At times touching, at times simply shocking (in its own way), it's enjoyable, and never really flags, which some "better" silent films like Broken Blossoms can't claim. So forget beauty, or elegance or emotional insight and you might really like this.
Oh, and Chaney? He is a marvel of his time, and this film shows him in one of his best roles as an actor, one of many. The armless man is yet another echo of the horrors of mutilated soldiers coming home from World War I and their inability to really assimilate and be accepted. The fact that his character is obsessed with Crawford's we might understand, but it's a love that we don't sympathize with after awhile.
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