Tod Browning, 1927
Starring: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, Nick De Ruiz
The Unknown is a bizarre, creepy film about a perverse romance and it is amazing that something this morbid was ever willingly financed by MGM and distributed by Universal. Though there are elements of melodrama and this is not an outright horror film, the imagery and plot are so unusual and disturbing that the film doesn’t really belong in any particular category. With a story by director Tod Browning (known for Dracula and Freaks), The Unknown relates the tale of Alonzo, an armless circus knife thrower who is in love with the young bareback rider, Nanon. Nanon has a phobia about men’s arms and rejects the circus strongman, Malabar, who is also in love with her. Alonzo tells Malabar to pursue her aggressively, thinking it will drive Nanon to himself.
But Alonzo has a secret. He actually has arms, which he hides with a trick corset. He is hiding out at the circus to evade the police, who are pursuing him for a number of crimes and will be ably to identify him by his mutated hand: he has a double-thumb on his left hand. The only person who knows this and helps him is Cojo, a malicious circus midget. When Alonzo thinks he really has Nanon’s love, he travels to an underground surgeon and blackmails the man to amputate his arms. This time away has pushed Nanon and Malabar closer together. Alonzo returns and, to his horror, learns that they are to be married. He is distraught and soon develops a plan to get rid of Malabar once and for all.
Browning and Chaney had a ten-film cinematic partnership that explored transgression, punishment, mutilation, mutation, perversion, and the gruesome, carnivalesque side of life. All Chaney’s characters for Browning (and many of Chaney’s characters in general) were anti-heroes, physically and mentally damaged men living on the outskirts of society. Like Chaney and Browning themselves, many of these characters were also performers, many of whom led double lives. The Unknown is their best film together and, though it doesn’t involve elaborate make up, I believe this is Chaney’s finest performance.
Though Chaney did many of the armless scenes himself, he did have help for some of the trickier stunts from armless circus performer Paul Desmuke, who is actually in some of the shots with Chaney. (Desmuke went on to become a Texan judge!) Like all of Chaney’s characters, Alonzo is physically deformed and has become twisted by life. He is a sympathetic and charismatic character, but he is not a good person, though we are given a glimpse of the only good that remains when he is around Nanon. Though Alonzo does not seem to understand what love is (he wishes to possess Nanon at any cost), his feelings for her do seem to be genuine. Though he is a tragic figure, he is also one of Chaney’s most terrifying, threatening figures and, oddly, his most sexual.
The overt sexual tones to the film are threatening, invasive and the film is steeped in castration-phobia symbolism. The opening scene includes a very sexual knife throwing act where the young Nanon has her clothes stripped away by Chaney’s knives. We also see Chaney without make up and, in one elaborate and fetishistic scene, without a shirt as he removes the corset that binds his arms. This scene also reveals his double thumb for the first time, his real mutation. Then there is Nanon, whose sexual neurosis causes her to develop a phobia about men’s arms and men touching her. When her father is killed (secretly Alonzo, because the man discovers he has arms) and Nanon is not overly distressed, there is the implication of past sexual abuse, which is a likely cause for her extreme sexual revulsion. A very young Joan Crawford is excellent here as Nanon, both fiery and vulnerable, and it is clear to see why Alonso has fallen so hard for her. She is an unusual female character for the period in that she has a certain amount of agency and does not solely rely on men to act for her. Though it is nearly impossible to watch anyone else when Chaney is on screen, she manages to hold her own. She has also said that the most she ever learned from acting was from Chaney during this production.
Though Browning’s camera work is never particularly dexterous, the film moves at a brisk pace and always lingers long enough on Chaney’s captivating face to deliver the necessary emotion intensity. Some of his scenes, particularly when he laughs hysterically at the news that Nanon and Malabar are to be married, should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema. Browning's film is small, intimate, claustrophobic. The circus sets were used again on some of his other circus-themed films, Freaks and Laugh, Clown, Laugh.
Though the film was thought to be lost for many years, a print was rediscovered and The Unknown is available as part of the Turner Classic Movies Lon Chaney Collection, alongside The Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, a restored version of London After Midnight, and a documentary on Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces. The Unknown comes with the highest possible recommendation and is the finest collaboration between Chaney and Browning. This is a great starting point if you have never seen Chaney at work, or especially if you have only seen Hunchback of Notre Dame or Phantom of the Opera and have never seen Chaney work without elaborate make up. It is also an excellent starting point for those who want to explore Browning's career outside of his much more famous, though relatively staid, parlor room pot boiler, Dracula.