Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Unknown (1927) **

Ever wanted something so bad you said you’d give your right arm for it? Why so cheap, wuss?

Tod Browning directs this 1927 classic silent film starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford as circus performers. Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) amazes circus patrons with his astonishing ability to toss knives with his feet. The problem is Alonzo is a fake (really, a fake circus freak—is nothing sacred!) and a fugitive, who feigns his disability in an effort to hide his two-thumbed right hand from the police. The object of Alonzo’s affection is Nanon (Crawford), a woman who cannot stand the touch of a man—think Ellen DeGeneres 80 years later). While spurning the attentions of Malabar the strongman, Nanon befriends the harmless Alonzo. When Nanon’s father discovers that Alonzo is a fake, Alonzo strangles him while Nanon looks on through a window. When questioned by the police Nanon reveals that she only saw the double thumbed right hand of the murderer. This gives Alonzo the perfect alibi, but presents another problem for him. Even if his love could one day overcome her intimacy issues he could never reveal his hand to her. And, so Alonzo makes the decision to have both his arms cut off for real. Yes, I know right now you’re humming those famous lyrics by Meatloaf: "I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that", but that’s just because you’re a wuss. Anyway, while Alonzo is lovingly having his arms chopped off Nanon is conquering her intimacy problems and falling into the still attached arms of Malabar. Upon his return, Alonzo learns that his love is cured and in love with the strongman. When Alonzo breaks down into both hysterical tears and laughter the couple assumes that he’s happy for them. Well, he didn’t lose those damn arms for nothing! After learning that the couple’s new act involves the strongman having his arms pulled by horses whipped by Nanon, Alonzo rigs the act hoping to kill (or at least maim, tit for tat you know) Malabar. When Nanon gets in the way of the riled horses Alonzo pushes her out of the way and is promptly stomped to death. At this moment one can’t help but think of this MasterCard ad: Admission to the circus: $10; Pink Cotton Candy: $1.00; Two Dismembered Arms: $5,000; Being Stomped to Death for Love: Priceless…

Most people know Tod Browning as the director of Dracula and Freaks (and some weirdoes who like The Devil-Doll), but The Unknown is considered by many as his greatest film. Personally, I like Freaks better, but this film is quite entertaining. Chaney gives a great performance and Crawford is, well, silent—and not even Bette Davis could say this was a bad thing. The ironic twist of fate that befalls Alonzo is one for the cinematic ages—M. Night Shyamalan would be proud. One added bonus is John George as Cojo, Alonzo’s dwarf assistant—"Cojo will never tell!" Dracula had Renfield, right?

So, if you’re a fan of Browning or Chaney and you like pseudo-sexual-psychological dramas, you will enjoy this film. If you’re a creepy stalker, take heed.


  1. There is a certain weird mystery in The Unknown, a David Lynch ambience, that makes it special. You see it and realize that you have never seen anything like this before. In an age of endless repetition that is a special quality.