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Much has been written about this odd film "The Unknown" released at the end of the silent era, 1927. Lon Chaney plays a knife thrower in a carnival. The trick is though he throws them with his feet - because he has no arms - or does he?? His partner, played by a young and gorgeous Joan Crawford, seems to be fond of Chaney - but she also appears to be falling for the handsome strongman of the carnival (Norman Kerry). Chaney is masterful here, running the gamut of emotions - when he finds out Crawford has fallen for the strongman and not him, the look of hurt and heartbreak - and even horror - on his face will not be forgotten by audiences. This isn't really a horror film - but awfully good suspense, and bears the stamp of director Tod Browning, known more for "Dracula" of course and "Freaks," although this film is just as important and just as entertaining. Joan Crawford wrote years later that watching Chaney immerse himself in this character and having to hide his arms was an inspiration to her as an actress - even though she would veer far from these kinds of roles in her long career. Sadly, Chaney would die in 1930, only in his early forties. But thank God for film!!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Two of earlier cinema's suspense and ghoul masters are in fine form in
this traveling circus story about an armless knife thrower and the
woman he made the ultimate sacrifice for. Lon Chaney is once again
unlucky at love as Alonzo the Armless, a mysterious man with plenty to
hide. He loves his assistant Nanon, who through unexplained hang-ups of
her own (she is repulsed by the touch of a man) rebuffs the advances of
Malabar the circus strongman, instead preferring Alonzo. Alonzo gets in
an argument with the circus owner and strangles him. He then in reality
has his arms amputated to throw the police off his trail. A short while
later Nanon is treated and cured of her phobia. She then hooks up with
Malabar. A devastated Alonzo plots revenge.
Lon Chaney had the most intimidating face in the history of silent film. In Unknown there is less make-up and body parts than in Phantom and Hunchback but no less menace of character as he seethes and explodes with volcanic ferocity on more than one occasion. Joan Crawford as Nanon displays a decent silent acting style and great legs. There is a softness about her in this film that would soon disappear behind the hard Joanie of the 30's and 40's.
Writer, director Tod Browning would return to the circus setting with even greater critical success when he would make Freaks (it was a box office disaster) in 1932 but Unknown holds its own with the classic in many ways. His script is filled with Freudian implication and scenes suggestive of ritual sado masochism. Combined with Chaney's penetrating revenge driven performance Browning delivers a provocative thriller and a little more.
I had heard so much about the lengths Lon Chaney would go through for his roles. The steel plates in the cheeks for Phantom. The huge prosthesis for Quasimodo. This is another example of what he, as an actor, would do to pull off his character. This is an interesting story of what love and obsession can do to a man. The sacrifice of body parts may seem sick, but in the context it works. This, in addition to the actions of a contortionist. Of course, at first, the man is a fraud, but as time passes, events demand some serious action. The effort to do away with a rival in love is pretty far fetched and hopeless, but it is one of the most amazing moments in film history. The crying clown has permeated literature. Chaney has another film about this, but the character here knows loneliness to the nth degree. There are a whole series of films that are available to the public in excellent condition. I am so impressed with the work of this amazing actor.
A mad and delirious melodrama that has to be one of the most entertaining
silent films, still fresh and fascinating to a modern audience.
The plot is tightly constructed and whirlwind in its pacing. Don't worry too much about its implausibility, just get on the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride !
At first, I was put off by this movie. A silent film about a carnie
with no arms? Why am I wasting my time? But I sat, I stayed, and I'm
glad I did.
One of Joan Crawford's earliest works, although she plays the love interest (of course purity rings true by her constantly wearing white)- it's all about the extent to which Lon Cheney's title role will go to win her over.
The movie is build as a horror, but I find this movie very tragic in a Shakespearian sense. He was so jealous that he had to hide the fact that he had arms for his show, but that's why Nanon loved him so much - that he went to extremes and cut off his own arms in a very trippy sojourn in the middle of the flick.
Lon Cheney's eyes are what make his role, as you can always tell what he's feeling by the intensity of his stare or the softness of his gaze. It's no surprise that Crawford learned her acting chops from him, as there's so much more to film than just spoken word and a plot.
By the time he's come back - freshly amputated - so he didn't have to lie anymore, Nanon has already gotten over her fear of "manly" arms. His descent into this state of madness is accentuated by his ever-darkening wardrobe, and by the film's final act what I assume was once very colorful carnie attire is now replaced with almost a completely black get-up.
I'm not usually a silent film fan, but I found myself not only liking this movie a ton, I actually rented it after I saw it and will most likely see it again. Excellent.
Tod Browning could certainly be considered one of the first true horror
'greats'; his later (talking) films such as Freaks and Dracula are his
best known work, but this silent classic certainly shouldn't be ignored
and I wouldn't hesitate to call it the great director's best work! The
story is very original and has not been copied effectively (to the best
of my knowledge) since this film was released over eighty years ago.
The story is definitely one of the film's strongest elements and
focuses on many good ideas. Like the later Freaks, the film takes place
in a circus and the main character is circus knife thrower Alonzo the
Armless, who throws knives with his feet because, as his name suggests,
he has no arms. The object of his affection is Nanon - the beautiful
daughter of circus owner Zanzi. It later transpires that - in fact,
Alonzo does have arms and apparent they've been used for some things
that are not quite legal. Nanon soon informs Alonzo of her fear of
men's arms...and Alonzo takes drastic action make Nanon like him.
What makes this film really special is undoubtedly the atmosphere and execution. Tod Browning instils the film with a truly creepy and foreboding atmosphere from start to finish. This is put across best by the use of music and The Unknown is hard proof of the importance of music in films as here it really does give the film its atmosphere. The circus setting is also well used, although the latter half of the film moves away from that. The circus is a place where you're bound to find some colourful characters, and this film features a few. The lead performer is the great Lon Chaney and it's no wonder that this film went down as one of his biggest successes as he fits the role brilliantly; providing a formidable lead and convincing every bit as the tragic criminal. The story is very powerful and you can really understand the characters and believe in their actions, even if some of them do feel a bit whimsical. The film also does manage to be frightening, which can't be said of all the silent classics in this day and age. Overall, The Unknown is an excellent film and one that must be seen by anyone who considers themselves a horror fan.
This is a beautifully crafted movie with a great and original story
that on the one hand is really sweet but at the same time also quite
horrifying and disgusting.
You can say that this movie was a predecessor- and more light version for Tod Browning's later movie classic "Freak", which just like this movie was also set at the circus and features deformed people and other outcasts in the main roles. It sort of features the same concept and underlying themes.
It's an interesting and above all very original love story that mainly focuses on a fugitive murderer (Lon Chaney), who has taken refugee in the circus as an 'armless' knife thrower, who falls in love with another young circus girl (Joan Crawford) but has strong competition from the circus strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry). It's interesting that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the 'evil' character of the movie. It's of course however way more than just an evil character. You learn to sympathize for him and sort of understands his motives and feelings, which of course is also due to Lon Chaney's performance. It makes this a real powerful and effective movie, with also a great ending.
Without spoiling anything, the movie features a great plot twist pretty early on in the movie, which forms the rest of the movie and introduces the more sinister and dark aspects of the movie. It's story is well structured and build-up, even though it's the sort of story film-makers now won't get away with because of the simplicity and romanticized aspects of the movie.
Lon Chaney once more absolutely shines in his role. This perhaps is one of his biggest roles out of his career, since he basically is present in every sequence of the movie. The perfectly captures the emotions of the character as well as its evil. I also really liked Norman Kerry in this movie. He has the looks of Errol Flynn and the more athletic body of Douglas Fairbanks. It was also nice to see Joan Crawford in a still very early role for her.
All in all, another great and fairly unknown movie from Tod Browning, featuring Lon Chaney in another great movie role.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Alonzo, the "Armless"(the master of expressionistic cinema, Lon
Chaney)is in love with assistant Nanon(the alluring Joan Crawford).
Nanon grows tired to the brink of psychological woe because of men's
desires to grope her with their hands. Malabar, the Mighty(Norman
Kerry), a Strongman who works for Antonio Zanzi's circus wishes to
forge a relationship with Nanon, but when he attempts to embrace her,
the phobia she has pushes her away from him. Zanzi is Nanon's father
and his disgust towards Alonzo heightens when the Armless one attempts
to woo her. Trying to bludgeon Alonzo, Zanzi is pried away by Malabar.
Alonzo vows to his ally, Cojo(John George), that no one will have Nanon
We soon find out that Alonzo actually has a harness underneath his clothes which hide his arms from others and that he is secretly homicidal with one of his hands having two thumbs! This two-thumbed hand leaves quite an indelible mark on others, especially when Alonzo murders Zanzi. Feeling he's closing in on Nanon's love, Alonzo will make the ultimate sacrifice by having a delicate operation which proves how far his obsession has taken him. But, what he doesn't know is Nanon has relinquished her phobia and has accepted Malabar's plea of love for marriage. The scene where Alonzo discovers from them their plans for marriage, his face twists in a state of madness, anguish, and horror(Chaney's expressive facial emotion is powerful). The morbid attempt at retribution from Alonzo towards Malabar(who is planning a certain stunt regarding horses pulling his arms on treadmills)will ultimately spell his doom.
This silent film is breathtaking mostly because of Chaney's commanding performance. His abilities to use his feet(throwing knives, wiping the sweat from his brow, and especially LIGHTING CIGARETTES)just makes his performance even more amazing. The film's bizarre nature only brings this film a much deserved notoriety. An astonishing, unforgettable work from Tod Browning.
Lon Chaney gave a heartfelt and moving performance, and the story was
interesting. I don't know if this film is considered incomplete or not,
but it kind of felt to me that some information may have been missing,
such as more detail on Chaney's criminal past, for example.
The most amazing thing I was struck by was the direction by Tod Browning. It was very well crafted, and so now I'm beginning to wonder about those stories by David Manners saying that Browning actually did not direct most of 1931's "Dracula" after all. Because with THE UNKNOWN here is earlier proof that the director could do very interesting work. Considering that THE UNKNOWN, FREAKS and even MARK OF THE VAMPIRE are all better directed than "Dracula", it now seems to me more than ever that Dracula was either: A.) intentionally filmed slow and methodic, or B.) that Karl Freund actually directed most of "Dracula", since its slow and draggy style was almost identical to his THE MUMMY. People have said that Browning "couldn't make the transition to talkies," yet FREAKS and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE prove otherwise, I think.
"The Unknown" (MGM, 1927), directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon
Chaney, is one of the most bizarre stories every put on film, whether
it be from the silent era or a movie of today. But with Chaney and
Browning at the helm, one can expect the unexpected, and this one sure
has those ingredients. Other than Norman Kerry, who co-starred opposite
Chaney in two of his most famous movies for Universal, "The Hunchback
of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), here
playing Malabar, the circus strong man, there is a very young Joan
Crawford in one of her most important film roles to date. In fact, any
Chaney movie from 1923 on is an important movie guaranteed box-office
success, and a career boost for its co-stars. In spite that this
particular film was done at the prestigious studio of MGM, it looks
more like the kind of movie that Universal would produce.
The plot is set in Madrid, Spain, where Alonzo, the Armless (Chaney), works in a circus managed by Antonio Zanzi (Nigel De Ruiz). In the act, Alonzo, the "armless" wonder, uses his feet in a knife throwing act, with Nanon (Joan Crawford), Zanzi's father, acting as his assistant. Alonzo loves Nanon deeply, but is unable to admit to her that he actually does have arms, which are strapped closely to his sides, and that he is a wanted by the law for some past crime. One of the handicaps he has that could give him away is a hand with two thumbs. The only one who knows Alonzo's well-kept secret is Cojo (John George). But when Zanzi learns that Alonzo actually does has arms, Alonzo kills him. Because Alonzo is "armless," the police overlook him as a prime suspect. Knowing that one day his secret will be known and that Nanon (who refuses to have men put their arms around her), only feels pity for him due to his "handicap," Alonzo decides to do the impossible, by blackmailing a doctor to amputate both his arms. After recuperating in the hospital, he returns to the circus and to Nanon, only to learn something very startling.
Chaney, as usual, is the center of attention who keeps his audience under his control. One memorable scene occurs when Chaney's Alonzo, who, after the amputation his arms, being told something by Nanon that causes him to burst out laughing and crying at the same time. Even though this is a silent movie, one can virtually imagine and "hear" his emotions. In spite that this style of movie acting is considered old-fashioned and theatrical, Chaney's ability in character proves him one of Hollywood's finest actors.
Once labeled as one of Lon Chaney's "lost" movies, it is available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies where it made its television premiere June 8, 1997, with a satisfactory new score that enables mood, emotion and tension, and, in my opinion, new titles with printing that looks more modern than 1920s type. And at 49 minutes (it may be possible that the movie might have been a bit longer in its initial premiere), "The Unknown" is fast-paced, and will hold interest to those even with short attention spans. (***)
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