Friday, May 10, 2019
"The Unknown' is a silent era masterpiece
By Doug Gibson
When I watch Tod Browning's 1927 silent masterpiece "The Unknown," and I've seen the film many times, for 50 minutes time ceases to exist. I'm lost in a film that is simply Lon Chaney's greatest performance, and yes that includes "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "The Unknown" is the most intense performance Chaney had, and 90 percent of the effectiveness is in his facial expressions.
The film involves a small circus troupe, owned by a gypsy entrepreneur. Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is the star attraction, a man without arms who can do amazing stunts, such as throw knives around the pretty torso of the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a very young, barely clothed, and very gorgeous Joan Crawford. Another star performer is circus strongman, Malabar, played by Norman Kerry. Malabar loves Nanon, but she shrinks from him, telling Alonzo that she hates to have men's hands pawing her.
Alonzo is assisted by a little person, Cojo (John George). Cojo helps Alonzo conceal a secret -- that he really has arms. In fact, he has a hand with two thumbs. Alonzo, it's learned, is on the run the police, who are looking for a suspect with arms. All this is interesting but ultimately it is supporting material to the film's theme, which is Alonzo's desire to posses Nanon and gain her love. I hesitate to say that Alonzo is in love with Nanon. He equates love with possession, and ownership. Chaney's facial expressions when Alonzo is near Nanon are movie legend, combinations of pride, desire, lust, deformed love, coveting, desperation.
In the guise of being a friend, Chaney encourages Malabar to try to embrace and kiss Nanon, fully knowing that will repel the object of his desire. When Malabar is near, Alonzo's face often changes into a furious loathing individual, with envy, jealously and hate making his visage truly terrifying. One senses easily what a dangerous man Chaney's Alonzo really is when disturbed. Indeed, after being humiliated by Nanon's father, circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Rita) Alonzo swiftly finds him alone and kills him.
It's evident that if his possessive longing for Nanon -- one that Alonzo can only hide with great effort -- is not requited soon, mortal trouble may emerge soon. This leads Alonzo to engage in a macabre, desperate act that he hopes will win Nanon's love. When his ploy backfires, the minute or so where Chaney's countenance changes from hope, ecstasy, confusion, despair, anger and finally rage disguised as maniacal laughter is perhaps the strongest in silent films, and perhaps all films. The late Burt Lancaster cited the scene as the most compelling he ever witnessed in film. Alonzo's ensuing desperation leads to a climax that threatens Nanon, Malabar and himself.
Adding to the eccentricity and creepiness of this movie is its accurate descriptions of life in a small-town circus, a job that a younger Browning once had. Chaney was, as always, a perfectionist, and with Browning's direction gets excellent acting performances from Crawford, Kerry, and others. Although it looks on the screen as if Cheney is actually performing stunts, and everyday activities, with his feet, Browning used a an armless double, Paul Desmuke, to manipulate the toes. For a long time "The Unknown" was virtually a lost film, until a print was located in 1968 in Paris. The 50-minute version is missing a few unimportant scenes. The shorter version actually improves the film, making it leaner and more focused. Chaney's obsessive, jealous desire for Nanon is more focused, with fewer interruptions.
This film is shown several times a year on TCM. Don't miss it the next time it airs. It's also on DVD and snippets are found on YouTube, see below. The film was released by MGM. Versions seen today have a suitable creepy, semi-synthetic score. Watch the trailer below the snippet!