A few days ago I reviewed the “recreated” version of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney lost film London After Midnight (read the review here, if you are curious). Yesterday I finally saw the film the duo made just before that film, The Unknown.
The Unknown, running a mere 63 minutes, is probably one of the most twisted love stories you’re likely to run up against. Director/Writer Tod Browning was known to make some pretty bizarre films, and while this one isn’t quite as bizarre as, say, his 1932 film Freaks, it certainly falls within the ballpark, at least with regard to setting.
For The Unknown, like Freaks, features a circus setting. In this case, there are no actual “freaks”, though Lon Chaney stars as Alonzo, a man seemingly without arms who specializes in trick shots and throwing knives…with his feet. Mr. Chaney’s work in the film is nothing short of astonishing. I doubt there are many actors today who could portray Alonzo as well as he did and with as much dexterity in the use of his feet as surrogate arms.
As for the plot of the movie, Alonzo is in love with his assistant/target, Nanon, played by legendary actress Joan Crawford in one of her earlier roles. My own personal greatest exposure to Ms. Crawford was through her work from roughly the very late thirties/early forties and on, so it was pretty eye opening to see her in her formative years. Ms. Crawford’s Nanon is the object of affection to the scheming Alonzo, who we quickly find out is a criminal on the lam that actually has both arms. In one of the movie’s greatest scenes, we are given a look at how Alonzo (and Chaney, of course) “hides” his arms and makes it appear he is armless.
Alonzo loves Nanon but Nanon has feelings for the Circus’ strongman, Malabar (Norman Kerry). However, she also has psychological issues regarding men. She hates the way men try to “paw” her with their arms, and therefore feels safe around Alonzo (who, as noted, appears not to have any arms and therefore cannot “touch” her). Meanwhile, whenever Malabar tries to take her in his arms, she is repulsed. One gets the feeling, purely by implication, that Nanon suffered some kind of sexual abuse in her past and it may be why she has such trouble “giving in” to her love of Malabar. Of course, this opens the door for Alonzo to try to gain control of her, acting as a friend to Malabar and Nanon while working to keep them apart and ultimately bring Nanon to his side.
Pretty wild stuff.
I don’t want to get into the big plot twist toward the later half of the film, but suffice to say it is a doozy and shows the lengths Alonzo goes to to try to win Nanon’s heart. Though he is clearly the “bad guy” of the feature, Lon Chaney’s Alonzo winds up being surprisingly sympathetic, especially in the scene where Nanon announces her love (and upcoming marriage) to Malabar. The mix of grief, anger, and, yes, utter madness shown by Mr. Chaney in that one take is a thing of acting beauty. Though Mr. Chaney may be known to some more for his incredible make up work in features such as London After Midnight or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera, there is little doubt he was an extraordinary actor.
Do I recommend this film? To film fans, absolutely, though I recognize modern audiences may find it difficult to sit though this relatively short film because it unwinds at a much slower pace to modern films. Regardless, if you’re curious to see the great Lon Chaney at his most devious and Joan Crawford at her most beautiful, by all means give The Unknown a look.