(1927) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Waldemar Young; Starring: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford; Available on DVD
Rating: **** ½
How far would you go to win over the love of your life? The Unknown takes this premise to its logical, awful extreme, thanks to the collaborative efforts of director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney. While Browning and Chaney worked together on eight fascinating films, this one is generally regarded as their best.
The Unknown (its working title was Alonzo the Armless) was thought to be lost until a print was discovered in France in the early 1970s. Its original 63-minute running time has been trimmed over the years, with the surviving version clocking in at a spare 49 minutes. While The Unknown is barely feature length, it packs a lot into that short span. Nothing essential seems to be missing from the deleted footage, and any perceived omissions do little to diminish the impact of this singularly unconventional drama.
Browning returned to his favorite motif, the circus, to tell his lurid tale of obsession. The story is set in a traveling gypsy circus in Spain, and focuses on a love triangle between three performers: Alonzo (Chaney), an armless knife thrower/marksman, Malabar (Norman Kerry), the strongman, and Nanon (Joan Crawford, in an early role), the object of their affections. In the world of the circus (as in life), things are not entirely as they seem. We learn that Alonzo is not actually armless, but wears a straightjacket to simulate this apparent affliction. Alonzo, however, possesses another physical anomaly, two thumbs on his left hand. Only his sidekick Cojo (John George) knows his secret, and is sworn to silence partially out of loyalty and partially out of fear for his life.
Chaney, born to deaf-mute parents, was the consummate actor for silent films, possessing the ability to convey every emotion through body language coupled with a formidable array of facial expressions. Although Alonzo does awful things throughout The Unknown, Chaney never fails to generate pathos for his character. Instead of loathing him, we only feel sorry for his predicament. With the assistance of Cojo, Alonzo must hide his arms and double thumb from the world, especially Nanon, who is disgusted by the prospect of being held by men. Hoping to get closer to the woman that he loves, Alonzo makes the fateful decision to have his arms amputated. In a career that was distinguished by many memorable roles, the portrayal as Alonzo the Armless is among Chaney’s greatest (eclipsed only by his work in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
One widely believed misconception (undoubtedly perpetuated by Browning himself) about The Unknown is that Chaney did all of his own stunts to appear armless, such as smoking and knife throwing, with his own feet. These stunts were in fact performed by his double, Peter Dismuki, an armless circus performer. To the untrained eye, the illusion is fairly seamless. In most of the scenes where Dismuki appears, his back is to the camera, or Chaney’s upper half is integrated with the Dismuki’s lower half.
Joan Crawford is effective as the alluring Nanon, daughter of circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). She exhibits a raw energy that has an irresistible effect on the men around her, namely Alonzo and Malabar. Alonzo misconstrues her compassion and sisterly affection as sexual attraction, leading him to arrive at an erroneous conclusion. Meanwhile, she views Malabar with ambivalence, thwarting his advances but fascinated nonetheless. Crawford does a nice job of conveying Nanon as a walking contradiction, conveying a licentious persona but fearing male relationships on a physical level (In one early scene she exclaims, “Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!”).
The music that accompanies many silent films, at least as they’ve been presented on home video, could charitably be described as generic, full of tinkling piano keys or a repetitive organ. This is not the case with the DVD for The Unknown, which included musical accompaniment by the three-man musical ensemble Alloy Orchestra. Their musical choices might seem to be a bit of an anachronism, but it works. Their choice of traditional and non-traditional instruments brings a decidedly contemporary edge, but not distractingly so. Their ominous, vaguely industrial sound compliments Browning’s unusual story.
The Unknown’s grotesque overtones with a circus backdrop have influenced many other filmmakers’ visions over the ensuing 85 years. It’s not too hard to spot Tod Browning’s inspiration for the horrific love triangle depicted in Álex de la Iglesia’s satirical The Last Circus (2010). The Psychotronic Video Guide also cited The Unknown as an influence for Jodorowsky’s beautifully deranged Santa Sangre (1989). While there have been many fantastic and bizarre imitations over the years, nothing compares to the original film, which stands as Browning’s masterpiece.