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The Unknown More at IMDbPro »

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14 out of 21 people found the following review useful:

Worth seeing for Chaney and Crawford

Author: preppy-3 from United States
26 October 2003

*** 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.

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7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:

A thrill if you can look the other way now and then--Crawford comes alive

Author: secondtake from United States
27 January 2010

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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7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:

Another Chaney Love Triangle!

Author: ( from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
18 November 2003

"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.

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5 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

You can't do a movie like that anymore

Author: Michael Nagenborg ( from Karlsruhe, Germany
18 October 1999

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.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

Imperfect but inimitably weird, plus a great cast.

Author: dae5 from USA
25 January 2004

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.

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3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

Lon Chaney Gets Two Thumbs Up

Author: wes-connors from Los Angeles
20 October 2007

*** 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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3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

one of the absolutely creepiest films of the silent era...or ANY era

Author: planktonrules from Bradenton, Florida
3 March 2006

*** 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.

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3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

I have nothing but praise for this excellent film; it really drew me in.

Author: merkorn-29 from Larkspur, CA
12 November 2003

This was a truly creepy but also touching tale with wonderful acting by Lon Chaney, Sr. It was also strange to see the very young Joan Crawford before she was transformed into the sleek creature she later became, and frankly, I liked her better here. The film bore thematic and "mood" resemblances to Browning's later "Freaks", also set in a circus milieu. The film was very suspenseful and I really didn't know what would happen at the end. I also liked that you could often read the character's lips and so actually got more "dialogue" than was printed on the title cards. When I described the plot twists to a friend, I also compared it to a Poe short story (not a specific one-just in mood). One of the best and most sophisticated silent films I have seen.

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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

The Harmless Armless Alonzo?...

Author: FerdinandVonGalitzien ( from Galiza
12 August 2008

Aristocrats are eccentric people, though not totally unlike other human beings, and as a result have a fondness for people who are different or bizarre. This is a good reason to spend again a summer night in the Schloss in the company of a whole bizarre gypsy circus, a very strange circus that has as one of its attractions, the harmless armless Alonzo ( Herr Lon Chaney ). Alonzo will gradually become more sinister during the film and finally will rise up in arms when he fails to succeed with his evil intentions.

In such a superb oeuvre, silent film fans can find or meet again a variety of freakish people with evil intentions ( the perfect equation ).

In this circus nothing is as it seems to be: a man who throws the knives at a beautiful and complicated girl who can't' stand men's hands, a strongman and handsome guy with good intentions, a sarcastic midget, a mad doctor and even a tyrannical circus owner. They share unrequited loves, malicious intentions, strange and unique phobias, and suffer from amputations of body and soul.

Summing up, "The Unknown", film directed by Herr Tod Browning during the silent year of 1927, is the quintessential circus silent film, a genre that this German count loves so much. It has a decadent atmosphere but it is the twisted second half of the oeuvre that gives to the film, if it is possible, more boldness, darkness and evil, not to mention that it is always a pleasure to check up again and again on this wonderful and terrible circus troupe, surely a collection of the most hideous, complicated and malicious people found in the whole silent world..

And now, if you'll allow me, I must temporarily take my leave because this German Count must join such a strange and perverse circus troupe.

Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien

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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

One of Lon Chaney's most fascinating silent films...

Author: Neil Doyle from U.S.A.
1 October 2006

As Leonard Maltin remarks, "ultra creepy" even by Tod Browning's standards. It's the story of a seemingly armless circus man on the lam from the law who hides out in a gypsy wagon. LON CHANEY, of course, plays the man who's in love with showgirl Nanon, JOAN CRAWFORD. The bizarre story is based somewhat on Browning's own circus background as a youth.

Chaney is Alonzo the not so Armless man who throws knives at gypsy girl Crawford with his feet. Alonzo loves the girl and vows to protect her from the grasping arms of other men. He's jealous of the attention paid to her by NORMAN KERRY. When the armless man commits the murder of another gypsy, he's able to conceal his guilt by hiding behind his armless disguise.

The plot takes a weird turn when Alonzo decides to have a doctor amputate his arms so Nanon will still love him when she discovers him to be truly armless on their wedding night. A doctor is bribed to perform the operation and Alonzo returns to the gypsy camp weeks later. What he doesn't realize is that Nanon has fallen in love with the strong man he was jealous of and is planning to marry him.

Without spoiling the rest of the plot, that's as far as I'll go with the outline--but as you can see it's quite an unusual story and it gets the full treatment from Lon Chaney. He's marvelous in the scene where he realizes his great sacrifice has been for nothing.

Well worth viewing.

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