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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.
A circus performer ventures into THE UNKNOWN regions of
when he allows love to be twisted by hatred.
Master actor Lon Chaney and his friend, acclaimed director Tod Browning, took their love of the macabre and fashioned this weirdly entertaining & suspenseful little silent film, made wonderful by Chaney's powerful over-the-top performance. Playing the armless wonder in a gypsy circus, Chaney's face is a casebook of emotions as he longs for the chieftain's daughter. After making a tremendous, indeed, outrageous, sacrifice for her, he discovers it is all an utter waste. Chaney's agony is horribly apparent as he feels his life crumble around him. The actor uses his superb physical conditioning to great effect, his feet as facile as any hands--the extreme punishment undergone to play the part enormously impressive.
In an important early film role, Joan Crawford is both sultry & disarming as the object of Chaney's desires; her intense neurotic phobia concerning men's hands certainly makes her character more interesting. Norman Kerry is affable & tender as the circus strong man who also loves Crawford. John George as Chaney's dwarf accomplice and Nick De Ruiz as the brutal circus chief are quite effective in their colorful roles.
MGM gave the film fine production values, especially in the circus scenes--a milieu dear to Chaney's heart.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A very weird film much in the style of Tod Browning, THE UNKNOWN, while
not being a horror film, has nevertheless been considered one of Lon
Chaney's more distinctive work. The story is just too eccentric: Alonzo
the Armless, played by Chaney, is a carnival performer who uses his
feet for his stunts and has come to believe that Nanon Zanzi, played by
Joan Crawford, who hates being touched by men, may eventually fall for
him. While concealing his own arms, he propels her to Malabar the
Strongman, but Malabar's gentle nature wins Nanon over. Alonzo resorts
to extreme measures to make sure he can win Nanon back, but in true
Browning fashion, he meets a particularly gruesome ending.
Right at the end of the silent film era, THE UNKNOWN came around with its typical Twenties' setups and wild overacting, and it benefits from its time; if it had been made only a year or two later, it would have been unbelievable. There is a very dream-like quality to this film, even in scenes with Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford just walking under the sunshine. Tod Browning loved the strange, and with the exception of FREAKS, this is a very strange movie. Chaney is -- surprise -- chilling even without makeup and holding his arms together under his clothes. All anyone has to do is to watch his expression when he has come back, sans arms, and Nanon tells him she is in love with Malabar.
It's not surprising that films that initially repel are later re-discovered and even praised. THE UNKNOWN is no exception to the rule. The thought that a man would go to chopping off his arms to make a woman love him is just disturbing. That the MacGuffin in the movie is her fear of being touched makes his ultimate choice even more disturbing. Chaney gives his usual tour-de-force performance, Crawford shows the girl she still was, and the last sequence, involving an attempt by Chaney to murder Malabar in which two horses, rigged for a performance, run out of control as Crawford, is short, bloodless, but spellbinding.
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.
I've heard so much about this movie, and it was not a disappointment. The surviving print seems to be missing some scenes, which accounts for its short length, but I doubt it takes away much from this twisted, sadistic "Gift of the Magi" gone bad. Chaney's performance is remarkable and, at times, genuinely alarming, and the very young Joan Crawford is a typical, but nevertheless appealing silent film heroine. Parts of this film really had me squirming, particularly towards the end. Browning's visual sense is the most beautiful I've seen in any of his films other than Dracula, with a full range of greys, whites and blacks and painterly compositions. It's available on TCM's excellent Lon Chaney Collection DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This silent classic from the embryonic stages of the horror genre was
by Tod Browning about four years before directing Bela Lugosi in the first
sound version of 'Dracula' (1931). By this stage he had already shot a
number of two reelers since starting his directorial career in 1915.
Browning's background was as a carnival barker, clown and and black-faced
minstrel before joining DW Griffith in 1913 and, as with this film, a
of his films utilise carnival characters and the circus milieu, from 'The
Show' (also 1927) to 'Freaks' (1932).
Set in Spain, Lon Chaney Senior plays Alonzo, an 'armless' knife-thrower who is passionately in love with the circus owner's daughter, Nanon (played by a young Joan Crawford). Nanon has a pathalogical fear of being touched by men, so one would have thought she need look no further, were it not for the attentions of Malabar, the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). However, Alonzo is not as he seems; a mass murderer who hides his arms and his trademark bifurcated thumbs strapped beneath a corset. As his dwarven Lautrec-like sidekick Cojo (John George) points out, should they ever marry it would not be too long before Nanon discovers his secret. Alonzo therefore bribes a surgeon to remove his arms, only to discover that the object of his obsession has overcome her phobia and has found relief from her condition in the bulging arms of Malabar.
The rather grotesque story of amour fou unfolds steadily and surely, with a neat sting in the tail at the end, but it is Chaney, the 'man of a thousand faces' that really makes the piece. Born in 1896 to deaf deaf-mute parents perfected his skills of mime by necessity, so was a natural for the silent screen where he became the first major star of the genre in films such as 'The Miracle Man' (1919), 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). Browning and he made a total of ten films together, starting with 'The Unholy Three' (1925) and including 'London After Midnight' (1927) and 'West of Zanzibar' (1928). What is most impressive here is the way in which he contorts his body, expressing the role through his posture. Scenes such as him smoking a cigarette with his feet while his arms lie draped over the sides of his armchair, or twiddling his toes with an empty glass of wine in front of him when his beloved fails to turn up to an arranged rendez-vous are just mind-boggling.
Unfortunately for Chaney, in the same year as this film came 'The Jazz Singer', the first ever talkie, and the following year, the all-talking horrors of 'The Terror' (Roy del Ruth). Chaney only ever made one sound film, a remake of 'The Unholy Three' in 1930, but was recovering from a throat cancer operation when it was shot and died shortly after. His son, Lon Chaney Jnr, took over his mantle to become one of Universal's early major horror stars, and later a prolific B-movie fixture in the likes of 'The Alligator People' (1951) and 'Al Adamson's 'Dracula Vs. Frankenstein' (1971).
"The Unknown" has to have one of the strangest plots of any movie I've seen,
but I can't describe it without spoiling it. Suffice to say; coming from the
mind of Tod Browning who set the story in a traveling carnival, you know
it's going to be delving into some heavy weirdness.
"The Unknown" is a silent film starring Lon Chaney, Sr., as carnival star Alonzo the Armless, an expert with gun and knife, who, because of his condition, must use his feet instead of hands. His assistant and unrequited love interest is Nanon, played by a very young and beautiful Joan Crawford. There's a love triangle between these two and the carnival strong man, and oh, what Alonzo won't do to win his ladylove.
My only regret is that I saw the 49-minute version taped off of Turner Classic Movies, and the movie does go by quickly. Short as it is though, it's a weird and entertaining trip.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Unknown is a fabulous film; I didn't like the comments on the main
page for this film so I thought I'd write some about this film itself,
instead of a biography of Lon and Browning. The Unknown is fresh and
horrifying almost 80 years later -- the only audiences who'll be thrown
will the the ones who have gotten so used to "realistic" cinema that
they don't appreciate a story whose very reason for being contains
nothing conclusive. This is only a surface melodrama, for, like Lon's
other great triumphs in film, this film presents a story in which the
pains and tribulations of Lon's character are only too predictable....
broken by moments of complete shock. It is a story of desperation and a
man who believes he is righteous in his vengeance. The scene where
Lon's eyes well up with tears of joy in anticipation of seeing Joan
Crawford's boyfriend torn to pieces is priceless. As usual, Lon appeals
to our best sadistic instincts while also eliciting genuine sympathy
for his impossible love. This movie is a dark fairy tale that it is
impossible to resist unless you have grown too old in heart to
appreciate the dark pools that contain true human magic.
edited to add spoilers warning
This is a truly spellbinding movie, one of the more bizarre you are likely to see. With Lon Chaney hiding from the law pretending to be an armless circus performer. Joan Crawford is stunningly beautiful as Nanon, the girl he loves. A well done serpentine story that tells more in under an hour than most films made today can tell in two hours. Chaney is the best film actor of all time, he really was the man of a thousand faces. It is a shame that some Browning/Chaney films have been lost forever, but this is one that should be watched by all, it is fantastic.
I give this one 8/10 simply for uniqueness. It's not a horror film, but
if you can follow and swallow it The Unknown certainly is an unsettling
experience. I don't think anyone has spoiled it yet for the unwary so
for an explanation of why, the best thing to do is watch it! Suffice to
report it's a tale of twisted love and the lengths a man's passion goes
to ... to get his hands on the woman. Alonzo didn't understand women
Tod Browning sailed close to the edge as usual, and Lon Chaney put in a fine performance as a murderer on the run - I presume he was, from extrapolation of events in the 47 minute TCM UK TV version. Joan Crawford looked very pretty, before Hollywood really got hold of her and uglified her.
There's obviously many bits missing from this print, but by paying attention it's fairly straightforward to understand. I think it's worth it too, especially if you like silent films as I do. The scenes photographed through gauze were striking, but what was that all about?! Overall, different and slightly depressing - is the moral we men are all so desperate when infatuated with a woman?
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