Directed by Tod Browning
Nick De Ruiz; John George; Frank Lanning; Polly Moran; Bobbie Mack
The Unknown (1927)
Ranking among the most diabolically gruesome films produced in the Silent era, The Unknown is also undeniably Tod Browning’s masterpiece. Lon Chaney’s monstrous performance drives the preposterous story with a single-mindedness, forcing the audience to participate in the lurid nightmare, whether they like it or not.
Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless circus performer specializing in sharp shooting and knife throwing with his feet. On a rotating platform, he takes aim at his beautiful assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford), expertly hitting the buttons on her outfit, letting her clothes fall away. Alonzo is secretly in love with Nanon and since Nanon has an intense fear of men’s arms(!), Alonzo is relieved when she rebuffs the advances of the circus strongman, Malabar (Norman Kerry). Knowing of Nanon’s bizarre phobia of men’s arms, Alonzo must keep hidden the fact that he actually has arms, keeping them trussed for her as well as to hide the identifying feature that would prove his criminal past; his double-thumb. When Nanon’s father (NIck De Ruiz), owner of the circus, sees that Alonzo really has arms, Alonzo chokes him to death; Nanon witnessing the murder, but only seeing the killer’s double-thumb. Desperate for Nanon’s love, Alonzo blackmails a doctor to perform a surgery, literally removing his arms. After he’s recovered from the surgery, Alonzo learns that Nanon has overcome her fear of arms, and in fact, loves to be draped in the arms of her fiancé, Malabar. It takes a moment for the realization to set in, but when it does, Alonzo nearly collapses. Plotting revenge, Alonzo sabotages Malabar’s and Nanon’s wacky new act, which features Malabar’s arms chained to two horses on treadmills, restraining their movement while Nanon whips them into a frenzy. Alonzo realizes that if he stops the treadmill, the horses will actually gallop away, pulling Malabar’s arms out when they do. But when Nanon herself becomes endangered by a bucking horse, Alonzo tries to rescue her, himself being trampled, while the two love birds escape, complete with all of their appendages.
Because The Unknown isn’t saddled with any subplots, the inherent silliness of the story is built so methodically and unflinchingly, and with such speed (the film’s running time clocks in under an hour), that one has no time to reflect on character motivations and actions (let alone the plethora of psychological “issues”). The fact that The Unknown completely relies on coincidences (most obvious being Nanon’s convenient dread of men’s arms and Alonzo’s, at first, feigned lack thereof. And then the flip side; Nanon’s overcoming her phobia after Alonzo’s surgical commitment to her original fear) actually works to reinforce the nightmarish nature of the film. In the light of day, The Unknown may seem contrived silliness, but the demented horrors are still there, under the surface, just waiting for the lights to dim, for the subconscious to take over, and that’s when the enormous power of the nightmare that is The Unknown makes itself known.
Going a long way to making The Unknown so riveting is the performance by Lon Chaney. The difficultly in reviewing the film is that one of the main plot twists, that Chaney actually has arms, needs to be revealed, which naturally undermines the power of his performance. But not by much, for Chaney sells the fact that he is armless so well that it’s likely to be forgotten. With the aid of a “leg double” (Paul Dismute) and expert camera angles, Chaney is quite convincing as an armless man. While the knife throwing and gun shooting antics are interesting, it is the mundane things, the smoking of a cigarette and the mopping of a brow, which completely sells the illusion. (The guitar playing may be taking things a bit far; but maybe not). Chaney’s brilliance is his “naturalness” at accepting a cigarette from “his” foot, and then reaching in to have it lit, again, from a match struck by “his” foot. He thinks nothing of it, therefore neither do we. While Alonzo’s character is decidedly one-note (he’s pretty much a madman), Chaney brings a humanity that allows us to, perhaps not feel sorry for him, but at least offer a smidgeon of sympathy. Easily Chaney’s best scene is when he realizes that he’s cut off both of his arms for a woman who loves another man, a man with arms! Chaney takes his time and his face registers every single emotion, and it is here where one can’t help but feel something for this despicable murderous creature. But not for long, because Chaney’s maniacal face soon indicates that his heart, his entire body, is now filled with the rage and all that’s on his mind is revenge.
Eighteen year old Joan Crawford has the difficult task of portraying a young woman with an abnormal fear of men’s arms. In the scene where she shows her disgust at the awful appendages, Crawford can’t help but go slightly over the top; I mean, we’re talking men’s arms, here. Still, for the most part Crawford gives a compelling performance. In her scenes with Chaney, while she never commits to actually saying she’s in love with him, she does offer some mild gestures, which the smitten Chaney could construe as interest in him. She’s at her best, however, in the push-me-pull-you scenes with strongman Norman Kerry. You can read the physical attraction in her eyes, and while they are screaming out to be held, her bizarre condition prohibits her from capitulating. It’s great fun seeing Crawford’s internal battle. More fun, though, is Crawford’s overt sexuality, which is “exposed” early when Chaney’s knives undo her outfit, but erupts in almost orgiastic glee as she whips the horses, which are pulling apart her lover’s arms. (S & M, anyone?)
Tod Browning’s direction is precise and rather fluid, particularly for Browning, who rarely moves his camera. His editing, particularly during the film’s finale, creates the anxiety-filled excitement and, frankly dread. There’s no anticipating a Browning film, and given what had happened earlier, there’s no telling what is going to happen to Norman Kerry’s arms, Crawford, or even Chaney (although you know he’ll get his comeuppance, you just don’t know how). Interestingly, for a film as gruesome as The Unknown, Browning never has to resort to showing anything even remotely disgusting. It’s all implied. The most hideous sequence, where Chaney demands that the doctor perform his surgery, simply has Chaney drawing his hand across his shoulder: just snip here. Horrifying, yes. Gross? Browning knew that his nightmare would be most effect if everything was left to the imagination. It’s what nightmares are made of.
The Unknown is available on DVD as part of the Lon Chaney Collection from TCM Archive and distributed by Warner Brothers. The black and white print is in okay condition, with plenty of lines and scratches but never to the point of distraction. The ambitious score performed by the Alloy Orchestra is wonderful, contributing a great deal to the overall effect of the nightmarish tale. Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake provides a conversational commentary, giving plenty of details about the film’s production, the stars and the the director.
Kevin M. Wentink