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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.
"The Unknown", showing as second in the Barbican's Lon Chaney series,
was a more or less unqualified success; from my point of view, at any
rate! The audience seemed down slightly on attendance for the
"Phantom", but on one of the hottest weekends of the year that was no
surprise -- the climb down to cool and dim 'Level -2' in the bowels of
the building came as a welcome change.
I was somewhat nervous about the billed electronic accompaniment from the mixing desk of "DJ Nacho Martin", but in fact it worked out very well. I don't think I'd choose to listen to that sort of thing for pleasure, but for this disturbing film the insistent looped samples and 'Spanish' snippets serve to accentuate the off-beat nature of the story; and after all, one probably wouldn't choose to sit and listen to an improvised piano accompaniment as a piece on its own. In any case, the synthesizer effects were generally an emphasis to the visuals rather than a distraction.
"The Unknown" is definitely a very different kettle of fish from "The Phantom of the Opera", and I would say undoubtedly a better picture. More unified and coherent, anyhow -- although at only 49 minutes there isn't exactly a lot of scope for longeurs! (I gather there's an American print in existence that runs about ten minutes longer...) Powerful stuff. I was particularly struck by the way that the backstory is virtually all implied; we don't know who Alonzo is, we don't know how he gained his skill, we don't know how he came to the circus or the past significance of his (real) deformity, let alone the nature of his hold over the surgeon -- and yet we don't need to; we know, or come to know, what sort of a man he is, and that is enough. And yet Lon Chaney makes him a sympathetic character: as he takes the title roles in both "Phantom" and "Hunchback", I take it this is his special gift, to make monstrosities human.
Considered as a purely technical achievement, it occurs to me that this is one silent film at least where a simple list of the titles would leave out vital parts of the plot, which are conveyed entirely unspoken. I love the scene where the dwarf is sent off to be finger-printed, and Alonzo enquires mockingly if he is to have his toe-prints taken ;-)
One bit I don't understand is the effect by which numerous scenes have the appearance of being photographed on linen or on heavily textured brown-paper; at least, I don't understand either how it's done, or why. On the first occurrence (looking through into Nanon's apartment) I assumed that the view was intended to be peering through a net curtain, but it happens again in circumstances where this obviously isn't the case.
The part of the film that didn't work for me was the abrupt happy ending, which is very banal, and seemed highly inappropriate attached to what is basically a tragedy in the true Greek sense. Again, I wondered if this disjointed leap was the result of what is presumably missing footage, given the odd length of the print?
General cumulative verdict: I'm definitely impressed by Lon Chaney, and young Joan Crawford is certainly an eyeful -- and a good actress, too ;-)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The music accompaniment to this silent gem (at least, the version I heard
TCM) underscored the problems that envelop the self-described Gypsy Circus,
and was well synchronized to the action. I have to wonder if the movie
would have had the same impact without it. Nevertheless, the visuals were
It is wonderful to see Lon Chaney Sr. near the end of his career, and Joan Crawford at the beginning of hers. But the real star is author Tod Browning for his ironic plot twists and especially his advanced psychological insights, considering that this film was produced in 1927.
Some of these are somewhat overstated, but that can be excused on the grounds that this is a silent film. The fact remains that the psychodynamics ring true today for syndromes that did not even have names in the 1920's. The film deals well with an early Joan Crawford's phobic post traumatic stress. Lon Chaney shines. His character develops into what turns out to be a truly evil predator, in the form of a psychopathic stalker. Nevermind that he claims to want to marry her. She has given him no encouragement, He has built up a doomed-to-fail fantasy about her, and it is stalking, pure and simple. And yet -- as so often with real life sociopaths -- we unaccountably have a degree of empathy for him that he never feels toward others.
I found it a bit disconcerting that Mr. Chaney -- supposedly armless -- too obviously had real arms trussed up under his shirt... until it was revealed that his CHARACTER had real arms trussed up under his shirt! The reasons for this bespeak an unsavory past. And there need be no lingering questions about the future -- for even if things in the present unfold the way he wants them to, he would yet continue a path of destruction. Just when you think that this person can sink no lower...he does.
What is more, Miss Crawford's character is not even aware that she is being stalked -- she who is so fearful of the touch of men. In one disturbing scene in particular, the lovely young lady joins in his laughter, innocently never realizing WHY he is laughing. Aside from the audience, few really find out the truth about the man, usually to their demise.
The suspense would give even the great Hitchcock a run for his money. I found myself cringing and gripping my chair, especially in the final moments. 9 out of 10.
I was raised watching films for the "Golden Age of Film" the thirty's, 40's and fifty's on television.My exposure to this film has convinced me that the true golden age was before the advent of sound. Mr Chaney acting and developing the plot of this film without the use of dialogue was truly remarkable he also invoked a sense of terror and impeding doom with special effects and cut a away camera angles anyone who enjoys great acting must see this film I am hooked on silent films. It was also interesting to see the extremely young Ms Crawford in a different type of role than those who love her later work have come to love.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Alonzo is a circus performer, who uses his feet to throw knives since
he appears to have no arms. In love with the circus owner's daughter,
Alonzo kills the circus owner when he discovers he really does have
arms. Nanon (the daughter) sees the murder but doesn't recognize Alonzo
and develops a fear of men's arms. Malabar the strong man competes for
Nanon's attention and, unbeknownst to Alonzo, helps her get over her
fear of men's arms. Alonzo, fearing that if he revealed his secret to
Nanon that she would recognize he was her father's killer since few men
have an extra thumb, blackmailed a doctor into removing his arms. On
his return from hospital, he finds that Malabar and Nanon are engaged,
so he attempts to have Malabar killed in a circus accident. Does he
succeed? You'll have to watch the movie.
Tod Browning directed this tragic romantic thriller and it shows a style very much like that of his later film "Freaks". It is a relatively simple plot with a very linear progression that is carried by the wonderful performance of Lon Chaney. I have never seen a performance by the Man with 1000 faces that I did not like and this is no exception. This is a sad tale of unrequited love more than a horror movie and it is touching. Though one might not agree with Alonzo's attempts to kill Malabar, the viewer can at least sympathize with his motive after all that he has gone through to win Nanon's affection.
Just like in "Freaks" Tod Browning has managed to create sympathetic characters, even when they are doing some not so nice deeds. And while I like that movie better, this one is definitely worth watching.
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 http://ferdinandvongalitzien.blogspot.com/
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have always seen silent films as comedies such as those of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. I had not seen the more serious works. Having seen "The Unknown" on television, I never imagined that I would have been moved by a silent film. Lon Chaney's expressions are so clear and jump out of the screen at you. He conveys a mixture of anger, sadness, and seething hatred hiding underneath a forced smile. It is all in his eyes. Also, you see a young, fresh faced Joan Crawford, as the beautiful assistant to Chaney's supposedly armless knife thrower. The lovely assistant has issues where she is afraid of men's arms which is why she is so at ease around Chaney who has a shady past and keeps some strange secrets to himself, including his desire to "own" his lovely assistant. The lengths that he goes to are unbelievable and disturbing. Who would expect less from Tod Browning. This was a fascinating, effective film work.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Friday June 16, 9:00pm The Moore
"Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!"
In the final years of the silent era as feature films reached their zenith, few actor/director teams achieved the success and notoriety of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. Beginning with The Wicked Darling in 1919 and ending with Where East Is East in 1929, their collaborations typically involved a character seen at first as sympathetic. In the course of the story he would reveal his true monstrous nature, only to once again be seen with some sympathetic qualities in the end. Chaney himself said, "Tod Browning and I have worked so much together he's called the Chaney director." Released in 1927, The Unknown was the sixth of their ten collaborations and is considered by many to be their very best.
Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is the knife thrower in a traveling Spanish circus. He hurls razor sharp blades with his feet at the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford) in their act. The Circus Strongman, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) makes no secret of his deep desire for Nanon, who responds with revulsion to his slightest touch. "Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me to paw over me." Alonzo is a sympathetic friend to her and the one man Nanon knows will never hold her in his grasp. "You are the one man I can come to without fear." She is unaware of Alonzo's true feelings and his obsessive longing for her. " ... no one is going to have her! No one but me!" One fantastic secret stands in the way of Alonzo's plans. His bizarre and macabre attempts to win Nanon later on become even more grotesquely shocking and horrific. It has been said that Chaney's exquisite talent for physical expression came from growing up in a home with deaf parents. His gesture and movement remains unmistakable, even when concealed by the costumes and makeup of his many characters. Much of his performance in The Unknown is remarkably conveyed using his facial expressions alone. Chaney's biographer Michael Blake recounts an interview with Burt Lancaster, who described the climactic scene of The Unknown as "The most emotionally compelling scene he'd ever seen an actor do." It is a moment of realization, both gripping and overwrought, as Alonzo teeters on the very brink of insanity.
This Lon Chaney classic is a real gem, as Chaney and director Tod
Browning create a movie that is at once fascinating, unusual,
unsettling, and many other things. The story is loaded with bizarre
elements and suggestive themes, not to mention some moments of almost
painful suspense. Chaney's characterization is masterful, even by his
high standards, and Browning's sure hand pulls the unusual material
together very well.
Alonzo the Armless, Chaney's character, is the kind of sinister, twisted, quirky villain that so many film-makers and actors try to create, but that so few can do with any significant trace of believability. Chaney was a master not only of disguise and costumes, but of mannerisms and facial expressions, communicating more with a momentary look on his face than most actors can convey with pages full of dialogue. Browning chooses to tell the viewers almost nothing factual about Alonzo's past, yet you never need to know, since everything important is there in Chaney's portrayal of him. As weird as the character is, he is fully three-dimensional right from the start, with plenty of secrets and plenty of substance.
The story is just as weird and troubling as the main character. The atmospheric setting in the circus provides a suitable background for an unusual love triangle. Norman Kerry is well-cast as the eager but dull-witted strongman, and a very young-looking Joan Crawford gives an interesting touch to Chaney's troubled partner in his knife-throwing act. The actual act is only seen briefly, but its weirdness also helps in setting up the overall situation.
This certainly isn't for everybody, but for those who don't mind a good dose of the bizarre, it is one of silent cinema's best and strangest horror movies. Chaney gives one of his most memorable performances, and the story is hard to forget as well.
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