Horror-tober Salute to Tod Browning/Bucket List Movie #466: The Unknown (1927)
I've tried to show that the lowliest people frequently have the highest ideals. In the lower depths when life hasn't been too pleasant for me I've always had that gentleness of feeling, that compassion of an underdog for a fellow sufferer. The Hunchback was an example of it. So was The Unknown… I try to bring that emotion to the screen. ~ Lon Chaney.
It's a double whammy for me today: my continuing salute to Tod Browning and a BLM that is considered his greatest collaboration with Lon Chaney, 1927's The Unknown. Like Browning's masterpiece, Freaks, The Unknown takes place in a circus and features one hell of a warped love triangle. Only this time, the normal people are actually the sympathetic protagonists, and our designated "freak"… well, not so much.
Alonzo (Chaney) is a knife thrower at Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz)'s circus. Alonzo is not just any knife thrower: he has no arms, but he is able to shoot and hurl knives with flawless accuracy. He also happens to be in love with Zanzi's beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford, who would never look this delicately pretty again). Nanon is also pursued by circus strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry), but she keeps him at a chilly distance. It's not because she doesn't like him, but, as she confides to Alonzo, she's tired of men and their "beastly hands" that have been pawing her all her life. The modern viewer won't take long to connect the dots, and her distressing plight instantly wins our compassion. Alonzo showers her with kindness and gifts, but his sweet facade hides a dark obsession and possessiveness. He privately sneers at Malabar's failed attempts to woo Nanon. Alonzo even utters a phrase to the effect of, "If I can't have her, no one will!"
In under an hour, The Unknown unspools more twists, turns, and nail-gnawing suspense than your average Hitchcock film, and I don't dare spoil anything. To spoil the insane, shocking loop-de-loop the film throws you for would be unpardonable.
Instead, allow me to wax hyperbolic on Chaney's performance. Chaney historian Michael F. Blake considers this Chaney's finest performance, and I enthusiastically second that opinion. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: all silent film actors weren't histrionic and stagy. Chaney gives a performance that is remarkably controlled and understated. When he watches Malabar and Nanon together, his eyes and body language speak jealousy, pain, and sadness, even though his face is at first glance expressionless. His eyes shine with tears, while, if you look closely, you can see his body tremble slightly in an attempt to be rigid. I'm not spoiling anything by saying Alonzo isn't the good guy or the romantic hero, but Chaney, as the above quote indicates, plays him free from judgment, and he is all the more intriguing for it.
Chaney, as was his custom, tortured himself for his art by wearing a corset to bind his arms, but this was one of the very few times he required a stunt double, since Alonzo does everything with his feet. According to Blake's A Thousand Faces and IMDb, the double, Peter Dismuki, himself an armless man, could be seen in the background in some scenes (he was possibly an extra as well). I'll admit, they had me fooled, I thought for sure it was all Chaney. It's a masterful portrayal of a romantic but sinister man.
Having recently watched 1932's Grand Hotel and now this, I'm amazed at how startlingly different Joan Crawford looked in her ingenue days. We tend to remember her as she looked in the 1940s; in other words, as Faye Dunaway portrayed her in Mommie Dearest. She was actually quite lovely, but she wasn't content being the sweet ingenue, so her look became progressively harder as her image became vampier and more sophisticated through the years. Crawford is reported to have loved working with Chaney, praising his professionalism, kindness, and crediting him with teaching her how to act. In this quote retrieved from Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Crawford said:
I'll never forget one incident with Lon when we were filming The Unknown. I was having trouble crying, which is one of the hardest jobs we have anyhow. I felt more like laughing, and Lon saw it. He came over and put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Everything's just all right." The words didn't mean anything, but the sympathy in his voice and the understanding in his action was enough. I started to cry, and cried all through the scene. I love working with Lon, and speaking of crying, we have stood around and cried at him when he is doing a sad scene, and you don't forget it. (113)
This was actually a typical experiences for actresses, for Loretta Young, who costarred with him in Laugh, Clown, Laugh when she was only 16, fondly recalled how he defended her from unwarranted criticism, and gave her practical advice on how to act in front of the camera.
Let's not forget that special, Browning touch that gives The Unknown its power. Every moment of The Unknown is tinged with unease, melancholy, suspense, and a permeating strangeness. You always know something weird or terrible is going to happen, but you can only helplessly watch, much like a spectator at a circus. Browning's former career as a circus performer really aided in his signature, moody atmosphere.
I also think The Unknown works because they don't try to paint Alonzo too much as a tragic figure. Maybe I'm just getting curmudgeonly in my old age, but I'm getting both weary and wary of stories of the unattractive underdog whose love interest prefers someone more conventional. Critics much more worldly than I tend to ask, "What does she see in X when she can have Y?" I offer this rebuttal: Who are we to judge? We like who we like, we can't dictate our preferences just because someone else is deemed more interesting/more suitable/simply better by a third party. Doesn't the woman (and, 9 out 10 love triangles, it regards the lone woman) get a say? Malabar is certainly not my first choice (for the record, neither is Alonzo), but Nanon sees something good in him, and it's not just his looks. He's kind to her, and he even figures out her phobia of being touched and is willing to help her through it (no, not like that). Raoul from The Phantom of the Opera is kind of a bore, I'll admit, but at least he isn't a stalker/blackmailer/kidnapper/torturer/murderer. I'm sorry, but being frustrated in love doesn't justify sociopathic tendencies; it's Nice Guy Syndrome at its most foul. Oddly enough, more films during this period were willing to address characters guilty of this and even punish them; 1935's Mad Love and 1931's Svengali are some good examples. Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera also highlights just how much Andrew Lloyd Webber missed the point.
The Unknown is a hauntingly gorgeous film, and even people leery of silent films can appreciate it, and it's not to be missed by any fan of the horror genre.
A Thousand Faces, Michael F. Blake, The Vestal Press Ltd., 1995.
Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, David J. Skal, Doubleday, 1995.