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|Index||93 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a supposedly armless knife thrower with a
gypsy circus. He DOES have arms though (one with two thumbs)--he just
straps them to himself. He then uses his arms to rob jewels at the
towns they play in. He loves Nanon (Joan Crawford). But he strangles
her ridiculously cruel father to death one night. She doesn't see his
face but notices one of the hands has two thumbs...He has his arms
amputated...but she falls for circus strongman Maldabar (Norman Kerry).
Not really a horror film (as it's often called)...more of a tragedy. The plot is OK (and not as convoluted as my synopsis makes it sound :)) and the direction is solid but uninspired (Tod Browning has always been overrated). It's worth seeing for Chaney and Crawfords acting. Crawford is incredible--so young, beautiful and full of life. Chaney is just incredible--the expression on his face when he tries to hide his anger and sadness at Kerry is truly extraordinary. He does carry on the sneering a little too much (I started giggling at it towards the end) but that's a minor complaint.
The only version I've seen is on TCM and it IS short (less than an hour), but it's the exact same one I saw back in the late 1980s when revival theatres were showing it. And it SEEMS complete to me--there are no gaps in story or continuity.
So, well worth catching. One of Chaney's best.
"The Unknown" returns to a theme common in many of Lon Chaney's films, that
of a man hopelessly in love with a woman he can never have.
Alonzo, the armless man is performing in a gypsy circus as a sharpshooter/knife thrower working with the lovely Nanon (Joan Crawford) as his assistant. He is of course in love with her. Rounding out the triangle is circus strong man Malabar (Norman Kerry) who is also in love with Nanon. Nanon it seems cannot bear to have a man's hands touch her (Joan Crawford?).
Alonzo is not what he seems to be. It turns out that he is a fugitive on the run and it is revealed that he actually does have arms and has created the armless man to hide a deformity that would identify him as the criminal the police are seeking. And given that Nanon cannot stand for a man to touch her, she repels Malabar's advances and places her trust in Alonzo.
Nanon's father, Zanzi (Nick DeRuiz) wants his daughter to stay away from Alonzo and confronts him on the issue one night. Zanzi discovers Alonzo's secret so Alonzo murders him. Alonzo then re-confirms his intention to marry Nanon. Alonzo's trusted friend Cojo (John George) points out to Alonzo that should he marry Nanon, she would surely discover that he has arms on their wedding night. So, Alonzo sure that Nanon will marry him, arranges to have his arms amputated.
When Alonzo returns from his ordeal he discovers that Nanon has gotten over her fear of men's hands and now plans to marry Malabar. Alonzo devastated, plots his revenge.
Chaney plays an unsympathetic character in this film, so much so that he doesn't evoke the usual audience pity that he had in other films. His scenes as the armless man are outstanding and the things he does with his feet are truly amazing. And he could express so much emotion with just his facial expressions. Crawford was just getting her career into going and went on to a lengthy career spanning over 40 years. Kerry had also appeared with Chaney in both "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925). The running time of the film varies depending on your sources. The version I saw runs about 50 minutes. The Citadel Book, "The Films of Joan Crawford" lists it at 65 minutes. IMDb lists running times of 61 and 49 minutes respectively. Despite the short running time it nevertheless presents a complete and riveting story. I would like to know what was cut out though.
Let's give Tod Browning a hand. He risked life and limb to make this
Anyway, I never thought I'd like a silent movie but this is one you can't turn away from. The performances are amazing, Lon Chaney is so good that you can read his mind, you almost don't need the words. And let me just say this about Joan Crawford: she never looked better than she does in this movie. Lithe, svelte, and statuesque, she glides through the movie like a ballet dancer, and her body is as taut as a leopard's. It's difficult to describe her youthful attraction without bringing to mind the caricature she became later in life with her shoulder pads and thick eyebrows, but in this movie she is simply stunning. Her eyes are so intense that they don't look real.
The story itself is very simple, sure people can describe it to you, but Chaney's Alonzo is so carefully fleshed out that he practically pops off the screen, you have to see it to believe it. He seethes with anger when the hunky Malabar makes a pass at Nanon. Nanon's pathological aversion to being touched by men is matched only by Alonzo's pathological obsession with Nanon. This is where the power of the movie lies. When the fickle Nanon's man-hands-phobia evaporates after spending several weeks with the anxious and ever-patient Malabar, she announces their engagement to Alonzo and his psychotic behavior explodes. You can read the mixture of irony, rage, and madness that simultaneously wash over Chaney's face. Browning lets this powerful scene go on for several minutes, and every moment is wrenching. As Alonzo teeters on the edge of madness, lamenting his dearly departed arms, Malabar and Nanon join in his laughter, thinking he is happy for them. It's a horrible thing to see, it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
If you only watch one silent film in your life, let this be the one. It's really weird and cool.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lon Chaney plays a man in hiding. He was a knife thrower but once in a
fit of rage killed someone. So now, he pretends to be armless and is a
freak in a circus. Well, he actually has arms but keeps them tightly
bound around him and no one suspects the ruse--not even Joan
Crawford--who he soon falls for head-over-heels. And, to her, this is
an ideal situation because she is afraid to be touched and likes the
idea of an armless guy. Well, to capture her heart for good, Chaney
decides to REALLY have his arms sawn off. Well, the plan goes awry when
he finds that Crawford has suddenly cured herself of this weird
phobia--talk about lousy timing!
While if you notice, this plot is VERY peculiar and a bit unbelievable to say the least. However, because it's executed so well, you find yourself being sucked in and the horror of the film is very gripping. In fact, it's one of the most terrifying and horrific films I have seen other than director Browning's FREAKS. Quite a film, as in addition to the great plot, Chaney does perhaps the best and most painful acting job of his career--making himself look absolutely like an armless man--it really was done perfectly. An amazing picture and one of the best of the silent age.
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.
One of the strong points of silent movies is that they are naive in the
positive meaning of the word: they are creative.
If anyone does a story like that today, one has to choose to do a drama, a thriller or a black comedy. Browning did not have to choose... he just made a very strange film.
Another plus is the use of running time. No fillers. Just 60 minutes of strange ideas. The film is not perfect; and not anyone will enjoy it. But it features a great performance by Lon Chaney and nice photography (incl. creative use of backprojection). And if you like FREAKS, you have to see this one... the background of Browning as a circus assistant really shows up (though I hope, it wasn't that bad).
Sorry, no story details. I don't want to ruin your fun.
Tod Browning is much better known for his "Dracula" (1931) and, to a lesser extent, the cult classic "Freaks" (1932) than for this oddity from the limelight of the Silent Era. From the opening scenes, in which an armless man (Chaney, natch) undresses a young Joan Crawford during a circus act by pitching daggers with his feet, this is a characteristically dark, warped picture from Browning that draws a great deal of power from Chaney doing what he does best: playing a tormented freak secretly endeavoring to gain the heart of a beautiful woman.
"The Unknown" isn't perfect, but it most certainly is memorable, distinguishing itself as one of the weirdest films of all time.
I watched the unknown in my History of American Cinema course and was amazed by how creepy the movie was and how disturbed I really was by the end of the movie. It crossed boundaries for a film of such an early time and their use of color and background sound was far beyond it's year, while they didn't speak you could feel the pain and anguish in Lon Chaney(Alonzo)as the movie went forward. . Tod Browning used a pulse-binding, mind-spinning score that makes you wonder, What will Alonzo do next?It was my first silent film I ever watched and i believe it will be one of the best i will ever watch. The level of realism isn't exactly likely because this movie really takes itself into a whole other realm of movie genre, into the Unknown consciousness and really gets you thinking about how far people can go for Love or for a woman. Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry also put in great performances. Norman Kerry as the Malabar the Mighty and Joan Crawford as a good looking innocent woman named Nanon in which both Alonzo (chaney) and Malbar played by Norman Kerry want her love. I felt like the three main characters synced together and put in a performance i won't forget. Truly a must see movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Young Joan Crawford learned a lot from watching and talking to Lon
Chaney on the set of this very strange horror film.
Alonzo the Armless is a knife thrower with a traveling circus in Spain. His assistant is Nanon, who has a phobia about men with arms. Her fear is real - "men's arms clutching, grabbing". Malabar the Mighty is the circus strongman who loves Nanon - but he has arms. Alonzo also loves her. Without arms - she trusts him and tells him her deepest feelings.
Alonzo has a secret - he does have arms but because he has two thumbs and is responsible for a spate of robberies that occur whenever the circus stops - he binds up his arms as the police will not suspect an armless man. Nanon's father is the ringmaster (who may be responsible for her irrational fears) and hates Alonzo. In a heated scuffle Alonzo chokes him. He has been strolling around with his arms unbound. Nanon sees someone strangling her father - a man with two thumbs but she doesn't see his face.
With her father dead, the circus breaks up and Alonzo tries to make a home for Nanon. Malabar will not give up his love for her. When Alonzo threatens a doctor with exposure unless he amputates his arms, Nanon finally loses her fear and learns to love Malabar. Even though the film I saw was around an hour in length part of the storyline was missing to do with this doctor. He knew Alonzo and the audience was supposed to know why - there was also a cryptic note the knifethrower sent him as well.
When Alonzo returns and finds his beloved almost married to Malabar, his insanity knows no bounds. Once again Lon Chaney's acting is superlative - his facial expressions are spellbinding - you really believe he is going mad!!!! He secretly hatches a plan. Malabar's new act involves a show of strength where he is strapped to galloping horses!!!! If the gears are going too fast his arms will be torn from his body.
My first impression on viewing this film was that I didn't like it - then as I thought about it I realized it was a compelling if bizarre movie.
Norman Kerry who was supposed to be the Errol Flynn of the 20s played Malabar. Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford are the stars to watch. I have already praised Chaney's acting but the skill with which he used cutlery, lighted and smoked cigarettes, to say nothing of throwing knives and shooting pistols - all with his feet is amazing!!! A young and beautiful Joan Crawford in one of her earlier film appearances played Nanon. She acted with assurance and polish.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lon Chaney (as Alonzo the Armless) is a criminal posing as an armless
circus knife-wielder; he amazes by throwing knives with his feet,
notably at assistant Joan Crawford (as Nanon Zanzi). Actually, Mr.
Chaney's arms are tightly girdled to his chest; he suffers from an
obvious deformity, which would identify him to authorities - he has two
thumbs on his left hand. Evidently a victim of sex abuse, Ms. Crawford
has an unusual fear of arms; so, she rejects the advances of circus
strongman Norman Kerry (as Malabar the Mighty). Instead, she warms up
to the armless Chaney. He mistakes Crawford's affection for love, and
decides to make himself her ideal, by amputating his arms! While Chaney
recuperates, Crawford overcomes her fear, and begins to enjoy Mr.
Kerry's muscular arms. When he returns, Chaney is understandably upset
Chaney and director Tod Browning are superb in this disturbing, horrific drama. Browning builds great suspense in the wonderful ending, wherein he winds up disturbing images in your mind, and teasingly leaves them on the verge of exploding - as usual, the horror unseen is the most unsettling. Crawford excels in one of her best early roles; she plays falling in love with Kerry exceptionally well. Of course, no one can match Chaney; though great throughout, his scene realizing Crawford never truly loved him is emotionally wrenching. Great character actor John George (as Cojo) has a fine role as Chaney's helper - the scene where he first unwraps the girdled "Alonzo" should have your eyes glued to the screen. There appear to be some portions of "The Unknown" missing, but the amputation of footage hasn't spoiled the film.
********* The Unknown (6/4/27) Tod Browning ~ Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George
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