Prizefighter Mason loses his opening fight so wife Rose leaves him for Hollywood. Without her around Mason trains and starts winning. Rose comes back and wants Mason to dump his manager Regan and replace him with her secret lover Lewis.
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>
Included among the '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die', edited by Steven Jay Schneider. See more »
During the scene where we fist meet Alonzo and he is throwing knives with his feet, the shot shows the girl against the board and there are no knives. It cuts to Alonzo throwing and when it goes back to the girl to see the impact there are knives in a silhouette around her. See more »
The Unknown is one of the more interesting Lon Chaney collaborations with director/writer Tod Browning, as Chaney's typically physically malleable performance is often executed here in conjunction with "stunt double" Peter Dismuki. It also features a great, early appearance by Joan Crawford, a complex, gripping, allegorically deep but economically told story by Browning, and it is an excellent instantiation of themes found throughout Chaney and Browning's other work. It even strongly presages Browning's 1932 film, Freaks.
Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a performer in Antonio Zanzi's circus. Alonzo is in love with Nanon (Crawford), Antonio's daughter and Alonzo's assistant in his act, which consists of him using his feet to shoot guns and throw knives around Nanon with precision aim. In a typical Chaney film complicated love triangle, Nanon and Zanzi Circus strongman Malabar are also attracted to each other, but Nanon has an aversion to being touched and keeps distancing Malabar and any other man who wants to be intimate.
Alonzo is the perfect complement for Nanon then, since he cannot manhandle her. She feels safe with him. But Antonio objects to Alonzo's approaches towards Nanon. Complex confrontations and a number of fabulous twists ensue, and Chaney fans will likely expect the resultant profound tragedy with the reciprocally bittersweet "happy ending" consequences.
I probably made that synopsis sound more soap-operatic than it should, since it doesn't very well convey the overall twisted, creepy atmosphere that Browning achieves in The Unknown. Like Freaks, this isn't exactly a horror film, but it has all the unsettling, macabre attitude of one. Alonzo is one of Chaney's more demented, sinister characters, as almost every move he makes has a nefarious, ulterior motive. This even includes the reason that he joined the Zanzi Circus in the first place. It becomes quickly clear that Alonzo will stop at nothing to have Nanon all to himself. But because the character has no arms, he can't very well resort to physical bullying. Instead, Chaney paints a subversive and deviously manipulative character. Even the character's love for Nanon feels wicked--it's more of an unhealthy obsession than love.
Browning makes good use of his largely pared down sets and cast. Except for the opening circus scene, most of the film takes place among only four characters, in only a handful of circus wagon (used later for both Freaks and Chaney's 1928 film Laugh, Clown, Laugh) and apartment locations, with the ending, set in a theater, symmetrically reflecting the opening of the film. A single scene in a formal courtyard provides a nice, symbolic contrast, as does the use of the "extended technique" of a thin piece of gauze placed over the camera lens for some of Nanon's scenes.
Equally economical is Browning's complex story, which tells as much--with the aid of the performances--through implication of various backstories as it does through direct action. The (heavily allegorical) subtexts are fascinating. Nanon is frigid, so her most intimate relationship is with a man who has been effectively castrated. He is so obsessed with her that he'll physically sacrifice himself to enable a relationship. She secretly desires a normal love, but can't have one until she falls into it, or is tricked into it in a way. No one is quite honest with anyone else except for a man who is a relative simpleton, there to be manipulated. But he's the one who ends up coming out ahead, even though he never quite knows what is going on.
Browning had to construct a number of elaborate set-ups to produce the illusion that Chaney had been using his feet to do everyday activities for a long time. We often see Chaney's body but Peter Dismuki's feet, such as when Alonzo is playing guitar, smoking, drinking, and so on. Occasionally, Dismuki just stood in for Chaney, usually when Alonzo has his back to the camera, but at least in one wider shot, we can see Dismuki's face.
The 1997 score on the Turner Classic Movies version of the film by the Alloy Orchestra is occasionally excellent--especially during the climax of the film, and occasionally a bit pedestrian. When it's only pedestrian it's at least unobtrusive. The score has a modern, occasionally "rocky" feel that meshes surprisingly well.
There are a few scenes missing from the print transferred to the TCM DVD, but for many years, The Unknown was thought to have been lost, similar to Browning and Chaney's 1927 film London After Midnight. A print was found at the Cinémathèque Française, mixed in with a lot of other films marked "unknown" because the contents were (at least temporally) unidentifiable. The missing scenes do not hurt the coherency of the film, which is a must-see at least for any Chaney or Browning fans.
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