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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 <email@example.com>
And strange it certainly is -- almost defiantly so.
Tod Browning is one of the great mysteries of film history. His life story is filled with contradictions (some he created himself). No one argues the fact that he was the architect of the classic American horror film Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi as Dracula. His success is one that is grounded in his macabre but decidedly non-supernatural silent works. Beyond that the story gets cloudy. The "official" line is that he went on to make Freaks (1932) and the results were so horrific that it virtually destroyed his career, making the studio keep a tight rein on his subsequent genre efforts.
At the top of the list for strangeness is The Unknown (1927), one of the great silent films of all time. It was also one of the most offbeat psychological dramas ever produced by a major studio, especially one such as MGM. The collaboration between director/writer Tod Browning, himself a one time circus performer, and the intense performance by Lon Chaney, was a thing of magic.
The focus of the story is Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower in a gypsy circus, known as "Alonzo, The Armless Wonder." He's really not armless, but has his arms strapped to his sides to appear limbless since he wishes to hide his identity from the cops. He's a career criminal on the run who with his cohort Cojo (John George), and continues to commit robberies while touring with the circus. Cojo is the only one who knows his secret and is the only friend he has. Alonzo is able to fling the knives with the toes of his feet, and his assistant Nano (Joan Crawford) is the target. She's the beautiful daughter of the circus owner and ringmaster, Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz).
Alonzo has become obsessed with Nano, and would do anything in the world for her love. He would also, he tells Cojo, do anything he could to someone who takes her away from him. Nano has a bit of a psychological problem, she can't stand any man who puts their arms around her or who tries to touch her. She feels very safe with Alonzo and they develop an affectionate bond of friendship, where she feels good hugging him. The circus strongman Malabar (Kerry) also compulsively loves her and won't take no for an answer, but he keeps putting his arms around her as she pushes him away.
Zanzi doesn't trust Alonzo and when he sees his daughter alone with him again, his anger builds because he feels he is putting "ideas" in his daughter's head. In a fit of rage he beats Alonzo with a whip until Malabar puts a stop to it and receives the thanks of Alonzo. But one evening Zanzi again confronts Alonzo, this time in the dark shadows nearby Nano's wagon and he notices that Alonzo has arms. This causes Alonzo to strangle him to death, but Nano could only see that the strangler had two thumbs on one hand.
Realizing that he can't marry her if he has arms, Alonzo decides to have them cut off. Alonzo blackmails a doctor (Lanning) into doing the procedure. But when he returns to see Nano, she tells him that she overcame her fear of having a man put her arms around her and will marry Malabar. The scene in this film when he realizes that he's cut off his arms for nothing is one of the most emotional in all of silent film (perhaps all of film), and it consists mostly of a closeup of his face as the horrible irony registers. Chaney's performance, and maybe our instinctive support of the underdog, has the odd effect of making you hope that he wins in the end, even though he's a murderer and he plots to have Malabar's arms ripped from his body by horses.
We get a glimpse of the pain that Chaney must have felt with his arms strapped to his chest day after day on the set. Mirroring that is a scene when he distractedly lights a cigarette with his feet, an intricate process that was aided by Peter Dismuki, a real armless man who served as a stunt double for many of Chaney's actions. Cojo (John George), Alonzo's dwarf assistant, looks on with growing mirth until he bursts out, reminding Alonzo that his arms aren't bound.
In the late silent period, filmmakers were advancing their art at an astonishing pace. Over at Fox, F.W. Murnau was making the most elegant of all silent films, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which seemingly liberated the camera from gravity and demonstrated breathtaking in-camera optical effects. Browning and cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad were not so precocious, but their experiments with filters and camera placement are nearly as intriguing. In a beautifully composed scene, Nanon grieves over her father's death and struggles between her love for the strongman Malabar and her fear of his hands; Malabar enters the room and confesses his undying love for her and his willingness to wait until her fear subsides. The shots are filmed through a heavy gauze that gives the entire composition the look of an oil painting with visible brushwork; it adds a softness and an intimacy that's similar to the effect later directors desired when they used soft-focus closeups of smiling women's faces, but there's nothing silly about its use here.
With that being said, Lon Chaney always played wild, scary and intriguing roles that garnered our pity and our sympathies no matter how horrifying they were. Part of the reason is because Chaney could play the agony of unrequited love like nobody else. His ability to lose the girl, when the movie hero would usually win her, was remarkably heartbreaking. This is just one reason why Chaney made an indelible impression on the history of cinema. The other was that he had a creepy presence on screen even when he played the good guy.
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