The Unknown (1927)

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Synopsis: Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is a knife-thrower in love with the circus master’s beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford), who happens to have a pathological fear of men’s hands. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? There’s one catch: Alonzo isn’t really armless. He’s a fugitive with a distinctive double thumb on one hand that would instantly identify him to the police if revealed. Alonzo becomes Nanon’s confidant and commiserates with her over the forcefulness of Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), also devoted to Nanon but shunned by her due to his frightfully strong grip. After the circus master discovers his secret late one night, Alonzo uses his hands to strangle his boss to death, accidentally revealing his deformed thumb – but not his face – to Nanon. Knowing that she could never love him if she knew that he was the man who murdered her father, Alonzo realizes that if he ever wants to win Nanon’s heart, his arms have to go.

Tod Browning (who also made 1931’s Dracula and 1932’s Freaks) is my favorite director, and in my opinion The Unknown is his best film. I recently had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the American Cinematheque’s all-too-brief Browning retrospective and was dazzled anew at just how stunning a picture it is. The sixth of ten collaborations between Browning and Chaney before the latter’s untimely death at the age of 47 from lung cancer, The Unknown epitomizes the style of film the duo were known for, the style they created: the horror film that tells the story of a deformed, mutilated, or otherwise physically disfigured character, which seeks to probe the darkest corners of the human psyche, and to push the boundaries of what movie audiences and critics alike can stomach. At the same time that Chaney’s remarkable abilities to twist and transform his visage are on display, his incredible range as an actor also shines through brilliantly; despite the shock of the horrific and outlandish character that he plays, it is this aspect of Chaney which ultimately leaves the most lasting impression in The Unknown.

Is he amused? Devastated? Enraged? All three!

I have to admit that I’m a big fan of “weird” movies, and The Unknown definitely fits the bill in that respect. But I’m convinced that there’s really something for everyone here, because it’s a film that’s not just weird, it’s good. Tod Browning never was the most subtle of directors, but he’s at his most effective here, mostly letting his incredibly talented cast do the work. If you’ve never seen Joan Crawford in her flapper days, you’re missing out on a huge part of her pre-1940s career. She’s fabulous here, plus she has been quoted as saying that Chaney was the one person most responsible for teaching her what it means to be an actor. But it is of course Chaney who’s the star of the show. He covers the gamut from creepy, to pathetic, to sympathetic, to downright evil, all in one 73-minute film. Many have said (though it’s Burt Lancaster who’s always credited as the first) that Chaney’s portrayal here is one of the most compelling acting performances ever captured on celluloid. The greatest screen performance by one of the most talented performers the screen has ever seen – how can you possibly pass that up?

The Unknown is one of my favorite horror movies, if only because it’s something so outrageous that only a team like Browning and Chaney could pull it off. This is always the film I steer people toward if they are of the belief that all silents are “boring.” The Unknown is anything but, and while it may not horrify you, it is guaranteed to make you drop your jaw and look at the possibilities of silent film in an entirely new way.

The Unknown (1927) – 4.5/5 stars

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  1. I was surprised by just how much I liked this film when I first saw it. On paper, it didn’t sound like my kind of movie, but I was riveted from start to finish. This was the movie that made me realize just how great Chaney was. Such a mix of creepiness and tragedy. And Crawford was a revelation too, so innocent and sweet. Wonderful film.

    • See, on paper it sounds EXACTLY like my type of movie, and it was. :) But I’ve heard this from a lot of people, that it didn’t sound like something they’d be interested in but then they ended up loving. That’s why it’s such a good way to introduce people to silent film!

  2. This film, and West of Zanzibar, are my favorite Chaney performances. Your attention is riveted on him throughout the movie. As you astutely note, he’s at once creepy, evil, and sympathetic. Browning also keeps the action moving; there’s never a dull spot. Good choice to steer silent newbies to!

    • Chaney was of course good without Browning, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Chaney brought out the best in Browning. They really came together to make something new and extraordinary, here and in all their collaborations. I agree, Chaney is completely and utterly riveting here, even with an undulating half-dressed Joan Crawford strutting around!

  3. Andreas

     /  October 6, 2011

    I strongly agree with basically everything you said. The Unknown is a masterpiece of silent horror, with Chaney putting his pliable body and expressive face to great use; although it betrays the same weakness as the rest of Browning’s films—i.e., its totally unsubtle, convoluted melodrama—it’s still unforgettably grotesque.

    For how fantastic it is, it definitely doesn’t get enough press, so thanks for giving it some attention. Also, you should read Guy Maddin’s thoughts on The Unknown if you can track them down. He’s a huge Browning/Chaney fan and has said a lot about this movie in particular as an “allegory of disability.”

    Glad to see you back and blogging!

    • Thanks for the Guy Maddin recommendation; I’m a fan of his as well so I’ll definitely search that out. Nobody did unsubtle, convoluted melodrama like Browning! :)

  4. This is one of my favorite movies. Chaney’s performance is utterly heartbreaking, even if it’s a kind of role he played repeatedly. (For a less perverse version of Chaney as unrequited lover, check out Tell It To The Marines, in which Chaney is the movies prototype for the tough drill sergeant). This is my favorite of Browning’s movies, too, or at least of the ones I’ve seen. I don’t know what happened to Browning when the talkies came in, but none of his sound films is as visually interesting as this one. I love the textures of this film, especially the ones that result from draping certain fabric textures over the lens of the camera. It gives it a weird visual style that suits it.

    • People often talk about actors that didn’t “survive” the transition to sound, but it also happened to directors. Browning is a very clear example of a filmmaker who needed some time to find his footing in sound films, but ended up completely ruining his career via Freaks before he ever got a chance to work out all the kinks. Even his supposedly “best” (meaning most well-known) film Dracula is atrocious in its utilization of sound technology. I do maintain that some of his later films like The Devil-Doll show that he did, eventually, demystify sound. But this is still by far my favorite Browning film and probably my favorite silent film (it’s a tie between this and The Man Who Laughs). I just cringe when people only know him from Dracula and Freaks (which is also one of my favorites — I know basically everything about it — but is deeply, deeply flawed). I always want to sit them down, make them watch The Unknown, and say, “This is what Tod Browning was capable of!”

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