This is the kind of perfectly formed yarn – rich in unfeasibly circular dramatic ironies and almost unbearably bleak melodrama - that one could easily imagine enthralling audiences in pretty much any era or context, whether presented through the lips of some soused storyteller in a disreputable Castilian bar, dramatised for the Elizabethan stage… or indeed adapted into a motion picture.
Even if you’ve never seen ‘The Unknown’, if you’ve been reading around the subject of old movies or horror films for a few years, you probably will have encountered some writer or other gleefully summarising the film’s storyline, and thought to yourself, “wow, that sounds like one crazy movie, I should definitely track it down”, or words to that effect.
Indeed, such is the ingenuity of ‘The Unknown’s scenario that it is practically impossible to write about the film without immediately lapsing into ‘plot synopsis’ mode. Whilst I normally try to avoid this in my reviews, hearing the story of this one recounted never fails to make me happy, so in this case I’m more than happy to follow suit. (Perhaps I should have added “some chancer writing about movies on the internet” to my list above?)
So, settle in folks - it’s story time. (If you’d rather not have the plot details of a near century old movie spoiled for you, please skip to the end of the italics below.)
Alonzo (Lon Chaney Sr.) is an armless gypsy knife thrower employed by Zanzi’s Travelling Circus. As part of his act – memorably portrayed in the film’s opening scene – Alonzo uses his feet to hurl knives and fire bullets at the circus owner’s beautiful daughter Nanon (a twenty-one year old Joan Crawford). As is traditional, Nanon is tied to a wooden wheel for this performance, and Alonzo lets his projectiles pass so close to her body that that her dress is cut off, leaving her exposed in a delightful flapper-era bathing costume.
As it transpires, Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, making his feelings so plain that her father, Zanzi, is inspired to viciously beat him, insisting that he does not wish to see his daughter subject to the amorous intentions of a ‘freak’.
Nanon herself however sees things a little differently. Opening her heart to Alonzo, she confesses that, “..all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me... to paw over me. I have grown so that I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.”
As a result of this implied abuse in early life, Nanon has developed a pathological fear of men’s arms, and as such feels herself condemned to a life of loneliness. When Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s lovably hapless strongman, tries to woo her (encouraged by Alonzo’s duplicitous, faux-brotherly advice), she flees from his muscular embrace as if he were a grotesque monster, subsequently weeping for her inability to accept his love.
“You are the only man I can come to without fear,” Nanon tells Alonzo, and, armed with this knowledge, you’d think our hero’s chances for romance would be looking pretty good… but unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that.
You see, Alonzo does actually still have his arms, and furthermore, they’re still attached to him too. He keeps them hidden, tied across his torso in a constrictive leather corset - a deception he has devised in order to distract attention from his former (or perhaps continuing?) life as a thief, gangster and (so it is implied) a serial strangler. (2)
Alonzo’s only genuine physical deformity in fact is a vestigial second thumb on his left hand – an additional digit that would no doubt have brought a swift end to his strangling career, were it not for his armless disguise.
As Alonzo’s loyal dwarf servant Cojo (John George) points out to his master, the moment Nanon embraces him, she will feel the shape of his arms and learn his dark secret – a possibility rendered all the more disastrous by the fact that Alonzo has by this point throttled her father to death in order to stop him standing between them. (3)
As a result of this rash action, the circus has been forced to shut down by its deceased owner’s creditors, and, more pertinently, the police are leaving no stone unturned in their hunt for the mysterious killer with an extra thumb. (To add an extra frisson to the murder scene, poor Nanon actually sees the mutated fingers that put an end to her father through a caravan window, missing a fatal glimpse of Alonzo’s face by mere seconds.)
So, it’s quite a pickle for old Alonzo. He determines however that, whatever happens, he cannot live without Nanon’s love, and so resolves to take drastic action. Never a man to do things by half measures, he tracks down a crooked surgeon whom he had previously met through his contacts in the criminal underworld. By threatening to expose the doctor’s nefarious activities, Alonzo persuades him to carry out a fairly extreme form of elective surgery, the nature of which you can probably guess.
Whilst Alonzo is busy recuperating from this (no doubt pretty traumatic) operation however, Nanon and Malabor are left kicking their heels in the town in which the circus made its last stop, where the strongman is making plans for a spectacular new stage act.
In Alonzo’s absence, Nanon feels herself increasingly drawn to the blandly good-natured Malabar, to the extent that she eventually overcomes her revulsion toward his arms and succumbs to his naively chivalrous advances.
Falling head over heels, the couple vow to marry as soon as possible, but agree to put off the big day until their good friend Alonzo – whom they respectively regard as a protector and a kind of benevolent uncle figure, unaware of his inner torment – has returned from wherever he’s gone to, in order that he may share their happiness by witnessing their union.
So yes -- you’d perhaps be forgiven for not feeling much sympathy for Alonzo up to this point, but… Jesus Christ, surely no one deserves a fate like this, even if it’s largely the result of his own cracked decision-making and generally nefarious behaviour. How many characters can you think of - outside perhaps of the realm of some particularly obscure and blood-thirsty ancient mythology – who have been driven to cut off their arms in the name of love, only to find themselves cuckolded?
As you might well have expected, the reunion between Alonzo and his friends is far from a happy one, and the lengths Browning goes to to draw out his protagonist’s gradual realisation of the awful truth still stands as one of cinema’s most excruciating demonstrations of emotional sadism.
But, I’ll leave my plot synopsising there for the moment, merely noting that, in case you were wondering how a story like this could possibly end, well… as it happens, Malabor’s new stage act involves him testing his strength by harnessing his arms to two horses galloping in opposite directions on mechanical treadmills. What would happen if something went wrong with the treadmills, Alonzo asks him. Why, my arms would be torn from their sockets, he cheerily responds. It’s all just too beautiful.
For those who have taken the time to approach Tod Browning’s work from an auteurist perspective, ‘The Unknown’ can’t help but stand out as something of a Rosetta Stone in his surviving catalogue, despite the truncated fifty minute run time of the surviving print.
With its lovingly realised circus milieu, its fascination with physical deformity, its bottomless reserves of melodramatic perversity and its deployment of enough overlapping layers of castration anxiety to give a convention of Freudians a collective migraine, this is about as thorough an exploration of what are generally considered the director’s ‘key themes’ as could possibly be wished for. (4)
Browning may never have been much celebrated as a cinematic stylist, but the surviving cut of ‘The Unknown’ is nonetheless a model of narrative efficiency, hitting each and every beat it needs to to tell this story well, with the director’s talent for ensuring his imagery hits hard when it needs to in full effect throughout.
As you’d expect given his background and recurrent interest in such subject matter, Browning has a wonderful feel for the romanticism of the gypsy travelling show setting (in particular, the male characters all look really f-ing cool in their wardrobe of paisley bandanas, gaucho riding gear, hoop earrings and wide black hats), and the mixture of set and matte painting that creates the opening establishing shot of the circus exterior is a very impressive bit of work (blink and you’ll miss it).
Elsewhere, the extremely high ceilinged, brightly lit operating theatre set makes for a striking contrast to the sawdust-floored rural environs of the rest of the picture, momentarily recalling the kind of sinister, modernist interiors filmmakers like Fritz Lang were cooking up on the other side of the Atlantic, and the staging of Malabar's big stage act during the finale is absolutely extraordinary.
Complete with the sight of a scantily-clad Crawford standing atop a podium, gleefully whipping the seemingly gigantic white horses (directly recalling Alonzo's earlier confession that “it was just something in [my heart] that stung like the lash of a whip” as he struggles to explain his extreme reaction to discovering she and Malabar are lovers), I think this would remain unrivalled as a deranged spectacle of implied S&M until Alejandro Jodorowsky took elements of this story to even wilder extremes in ‘Santa Sangre’ (1989).
There are a few eccentric stylistic choices elsewhere (the curious decision to shoot several scenes through what looks like sackcloth is often mentioned), but for the most part, the remainder of the film is very plainly presented. I’m pretty sure the camera remains static throughout, and likewise, the editing of the narrative is strictly linear in its presentation, with master shots, two shots, shot/reverse shots etc all handled strictly by the book.
Nonetheless though, this grounded/fixed perspective allows Browning’s close ups and tableaux to achieve an intensely vivid pictorial quality that is often captivating. Like good paintings, these shots carry within them a depth of feeling that heightens the film's emotional power immensely.
Such is the ingenuity of the story Browning and his collaborators have devised here, I’m tempted to say it would have been difficult for them to go wrong however they chose to frame the action, but perhaps even more crucial to the success ‘The Unknown’ is its casting.
Had merely adequate performers been cast in its central roles, it is likely ‘The Unknown’ would never have risen above the level of a particularly bizarre theatrical melodrama, forgotten by all but a handful of silent/pre-code era archivists and fanatics. With Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford on hand however, it’s a whole different story… and not merely on account of their (contemporary or subsequent) fame either.
Crawford’s performance, it must be said, is excellent. Such is the strength of her presence on screen that it feel entirely believable that a man of Alonzo’s wide and bitter experience should become obsessed with Nanon, even as her damaged, brittle mannerisms simultaneously provide a surprisingly raw portrayal of an abused/victimised woman for this era of cinema; “Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!” she exclaims in impotent fury after Malabar initially tries to embrace her.
And, speaking of Malabar, even Norman Kerry acquits himself well here, despite initially seeming lined up to be a complete waste of space. Blank-eyed, empty-headed and perpetually grinning, he provides a complete contrast to the ancient, deep red claret of Alonzo’s uniquely troubled character, making us feel our anti-hero’s humiliation all the more keenly once he discovers he has lost out in love to the human equivalent of an unflavoured biscuit.
Mainly though, we need to talk about Lon Chaney.
It may have become a bit of a truism to point out that silent film acting is a different beast from sound acting, but rarely has that point been more clearly demonstrated than by Chaney’s performance in ‘The Unknown’.
In a sound context, his facial gymnastics and heavily made up features would have been regarded as intolerably OTT, but, denied a voice, it is through these kind of gestures that silent characters gain live – and all the more so when they’re even denied the use of their arms for most of the picture. The way that Chaney methodically builds Alonzo up as a character, entirely through his facial tics and eye movements, his mode of dress, his sudden shivers and lunges, is absolutely remarkable. (5)
The figure of the “sympathetic monster” would of course go on to become a cornerstone of American horror cinema as it developed through the rest of the 20th century, but in ‘The Unknown’ Chaney delivers a very different, and considerably more challenging, recipient of our sympathies from the kind of sad-eyed, agency-fee automatons derived from the lineage of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, Paul Wegener’s Golem and, eventually, Karloff’s monster and it’s descendants.
Unlike those critters, Alonzo is unambiguously a villain – one who neither seeks nor receives any pardon for his maleficence. A criminal, liar and murderer, he cheats, deceives and manipulates everyone he meets through the course of the film, including the woman he professes to love. He upturns the foundations of the essentially benign world in which the drama begins, brings doom upon his own head with admirable efficiency, and basically behaves in the most tyrannical manner imaginable. And yet…
Scanning reviews online, I have often seen ‘The Unknown’ described as a “classical tragedy”, but in reality Alonzo represents something closer to the opposite of a conventional tragic hero. Rather than noble character with one fatal flaw, Chaney presents Alonzo as a tangled mass of flaws and neuroses, from behind which a redeeming spirit of nobility somehow still shines, daring us, for want of a better word, to feel love for him, as well as pity.
It is possible that Vincent Van Gogh’s infamous sacrifice of his ear may to some extent have distantly inspired the story of ‘The Unknown’, and I would go so far as to say that Chaney imbues Alonzo with what I can only describe as an ‘artistic’ sensibility. We don’t doubt for a second the sincerity of Alonzo’s love for Nanon, even as we recognise that his ability to differentiate reality from fantasy hangs by the very thinnest of threads.
Rather than just an intimidating heavy, he serves as a rich, over-powering presence in the lives of the younger characters, giving generously of himself, in spite of the self-interested machinations cloud his honesty. He may, we swiftly learn, be more or less insane, but his is not the kind of insanity that can easily be written off, and his companionship with both Nanon and Cojo (even with Malabar) is seen to be real and compassionate, even as his conduct is shaded by a strain of misanthropy that we feel is birthed more from bitter experience than from mere ingrained nastiness. (“You are wise, Nanon”, he says early on the film when Crawford confesses her hatred of men’s touch, “always fear them, always hate them.”)
Chaney’s big moment of course is Alonzo’s post-amputation reunion with Nanon and Malabar. This takes place - where else - on the stage of a theatre, and, as noted, is handled by Browning as a scene of excruciating emotional torture, extended well beyond the point of audience discomfort.
Shock, frustration, sorrow, rage, menace, terror, hysteria, despair, self-hatred and all-out howling madness - all of these are powerfully felt as they shift, meld and mutate across Alonzo’s visage in what amounts to a harrowing tour de force of silent emotional devastation. It may seem melodramatic to speak of seeing a man's heart smashed into a million pieces live on screen, but you'll feel pretty sure you know what that looks like after watching Chaney here.
In fact, the only rationale I can think of for this film being named ‘The Unknown’ relates to the unimaginable combinations of errant emotions that Chaney manages to dredge up here, verging into states of being that remain entirely nameless, and concluding only when he works himself up to the point of seizure.
“I'm all right now,” an inter-title assigned to Alonzo reads just a few a few moments later, as he regains his composure, his mask back in place and his plan of vengeance already taking shape.
Before watching ‘The Unknown’, I’d always assumed Chaney’s “man of a thousand faces” legend was coined in reference to the effects he achieved with his famous make up box, but, from watching his performance here, it’s clear he could cycle through those faces live in front of the camera with the ease of a martial arts star demonstrating his/her training moves. It is an incredible sight to behold – perhaps the very zenith of a form of acting that would be rendered obsolete mere months after this film’s release.
I had been all set to herald Alonzo as the progenitor of his own lineage of doomed, sociopathic anti-heroes within horror cinema, but, to be honest, I can think of very few characters within the genre who actually lived up to the example Chaney sets here. Peter Lorre’s Dr Gogol in Mad Love perhaps comes closest, with Karloff’s Imhotep in ‘The Mummy’, Price’s Phibes and Usher, and perhaps an unusually affecting mad scientist turn here and there all lurking distantly in the background – but really, Alonzo the Armless stands alone.
We will never really know how Chaney might have adapted to the coming of sound, but, as far as America’s silent cinema goes, he remains a performer without peer, and ‘The Unknown’ is perhaps his strongest surviving vehicle. An unforgettable viewing experience, it is not so much ‘haunting’ in the genteel sense of the ghosts more commonly encountered in the era’s mystery stories, but a raw, emotional wound of a picture that lodges itself in your mind and refuses to leave you be, like a scab you just can’t help but scratch.
(1) Browning and Young respectively take credit for “story” and “scenario”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, in addition to which we should also mention Joseph Farnham, whose work on the text for film’s inter-titles is wonderful. We should note at this point that various online sources claim that ‘The Unknown’ was adapted without credit from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1915 novel ‘K’. As I can’t find a detailed plot synopsis of the novel though, and certainly can’t be bothered to track down a copy and read it, I’ll have to refrain from further comment on this for the time being.
(2)If the precise details of Alonzo’s criminal career remain frustratingly vague, this seems to be due to the fact that no less than fourteen minutes of footage, reportedly dealing largely with this subject, have been excised from all surviving prints of ‘The Unknown’, and are now – tragically - assumed lost.)
(3) Browning’s notorious ‘Freaks’ (1932) - which, as you will have surmised, directly rehashes a few key plot elements from ‘The Unknown’ – may be similarly personal, and similarly memorable, but for my money the earlier film is by far the greater achievement. (More on this perhaps when I get around to reviewing ‘Freaks at some point in the future.)
(4) If you’re thinking that actor John George looks a bit familiar, that’s probably due to the fact that he appeared in upwards of two hundred Hollywood productions prior to his death in 1968, and, as was so sadly often the case for dwarf actors, suffered the indignity of going uncredited in almost all of them. Such is the range of his filmography, chances are you must have seen him in something over the years, although oddly enough he apparently didn’t appear in ‘Freaks’, which you’d think would have been a shoe-in given his work for Browning here.
(5) I was originally going to take some time here to lavish further praise upon Chaney for his astonishing dedication to this role vis-a-vis learning to drink wine, smoke cigarettes, wipe his eyes with a handkerchief and throw knives, all using his feet. I have read elsewhere however that at least some of these accomplishments were doubled for Chaney by Paul Desmuke – a genuine armless man apparently famed for his performances on the violin.
Although we ostensibly see Chaney perform out these actions in single shots with his face clearly visible, after watching the film again I can’t rule out the possibility that some of them may have been cleverly faked – eg, with Desmuke concealed beneath a table, or just out of frame, extending his legs upward toward Chaney’s face.
Given that there is almost certainly no one left alive who can give us a definitive answer either way though, I didn’t want to clog up the main text of the review with such conjecture. Naturally I’d love to believe that it was Chaney himself getting busy with his feet (as if the performance he gives with the rest of his body wasn’t impressive enough), but… who knows.