The Unknown (1927), being what is known as a “programmer” or the kind of filler movies they cranked out as fast as possible in the days before sound, is probably not as good as the last crazy-ass movie I reviewed, Baby Doll. But it is directed by Tod Browning, who made Freaks, and stars Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces. And even though it’s a silent film and therefore a little more difficult to watch, it definitely has plenty of Weird. Ohhhhhh yes.
You clearly want to watch this. No? Well then, you won’t mind me giving away the whole plot. Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless Wonder in a gypsy circus. I know! You’re thinking that this has got to have a lot of deviance and depravity and deformity, considering that its another circus movie by Browning. Well, honestly, I could have used more depravity, but Chaney is an amazing actor.
See that? I can't really get a screencapture of how good he is as an actor because his skill is in the quicksilver way he flashes through emotions. Want to see Chaney go from lovesick to possessive and controlling to brutally murderous to insane with jealousy to almost hiding a sneer of hatred and plotting behind a smile of goodwill? All in a single take? He is good. Good at eeeeeeevil, I mean.
Amazingly, this is one of Joan Crawford’s very first starring roles and it was so strange to see her on screen in this. She didn’t really do much acting, per se, but she is still magnetic --- I can see why they say the camera just loves her --- particularly when she’s still, her beauty just glows through at you.
Damn, that’s hot. Crawford plays Nanon, the gypsy daughter of the circus owner, and she is pathologically afraid of men, because they are always trying to put their hands on her. Here’s where Browning has a little fun, making a little allegory of how the good girl is innocent and frightened and has to be initiated into sex.
She’s a passionate little spitfire, but men’s … hands … just leave her terrified, and she shrinks away when any come into contact with her. The only man she is not afraid of is Alonzo, because … you guessed it. He has no hands. And he swears to protect her for ever, for he loves her. And he confesses to his friend and henchman, the evil dwarf (how could we have a Browning circus movie without an evil dwarf?) that he must own her, that he will possess her at all costs.
But here’s where the fun gets a little perverse, or the perverse gets a little fun, depending on how you like it.
The character you thought was safe and protective because of a lack, actually possesses an excess. And who would go to the trouble to hide in a circus as an armless man, but a murderer who is wanted for strangling so many people!
Browning externalizes this inner depravity by making this killer-disguised-as-deformed actually deformed under the disguise:
I told you he bore an excess of signification. (That’s what she said.) So, while Nanon kisses Alonzo and allows him to touch her because she thinks he lacks those strange and scary … hands, he is actually doubly depraved! Maybe even triply, because, you know, he’s got a whole ’nuther … ok, just nod your understanding because the dirty metaphor doesn’t really hold up if you look at it too closely. Which is Nanon’s problem, after all!
I should have mentioned up at the beginning that Nanon was part of Alonzo’s act. Just in case you didn’t pick up on the idea that we are substituting for something with those … hands, Alonzo’s act consists of using a gun to shoot Nanon’s costume off her body and then throwing knives to make an outline around her silhouette. Look at all that masculine power and prowess Alonzo has even without any arms!
Oh wait, that’s not Alonzo the Armless wonder, that’s strong man Malabar, the guy who gets fresh with Nanon, bending a massive bar with … ok now this is just getting silly.
Anyway, the problem is that Nanon has feelings for Malabar the strongman, but is also afraid of him and his manly hands. His difficulty was that he was just walking up and grabbing her and throwing her around roughly, which you gotta admit is kind of a drag when you’re just walking down the way to get some chow after a performance, minding your own business. Once he learns to go slow, offering her flowers and saying he loves her and wants to be around her forever and that he understands she is afraid when he touches her, the relationship improves. They start walking around places together and she gradually brings herself to trust him and look at his … hands, and one day they just happen to be walking on a ledge or wall or something and she slips and he catches her! With his hands! And after she gets over the shock for a minute she decides she really kinda likes it and hey, they should get married.
(from the Dialogue Slide: Now I understand what you are afraid of. Jeez, make it more obvious, guys.)
No baby doll this girl. Even when she is supposed to be looking terrified she looks like a man-eater. Which is probably why she was able to move up into stardom.
Anyway, to make this review longer than the actual film, let me point out what Alonzo the not-really-armless-wonder has been doing. Upon being told by his sidekick the evil dwarf that he can’t let Nanon hug him anymore because she might be able to, um, feel through his disguise, Alonzo makes plans to propose to her and then despairs of what will happen on their wedding night; what will she do when she first sees him naked? She’ll be expecting to not see any … hands, and instead she would see hands! Craaaaaaa-zy hands!!!! She might even recognize that he is the strangler who keeps mysteriously murdering people wherever the circus group goes, including even her own father at one point! (Forgot I left that out.) So he comes up with… a plan.
What sort of secret sexual past does this doctor have, I wonder? Whatever it is, he knows the truth about Alonzo’s … hand, in all its queer deformity. Ohhh, yes, I think there was some major deviance here, for Alonzo blackmails him and tells the doctor he must do whatever he says in order to keep Alonzo silent.
So, just like he is ordered to, he secretly saws off Alonzo’s arms. Operates. Whatever. The point is, Nanon was deathly afraid of men’s … hands, so Alonzo hides his past evil secrets by becoming what Nanon thinks he already is by amputating his … hands. When really, all she wanted was a little romantic foreplay before being, er, manhandled. That and for him to not kill people, like her relatives. I hope all you guys out there are taking notes about What Women Really Want.
And what does the now-really-armless-wonder Alonzo do when he returns and discovers that his sacrifice was for nothing and Nanon got over her fear of … hands and plans to marry this dude?
He acts up a storm, like he was going for the first Oscar!!!
Cue insane maniacal laughter ... now! Seriously, this scene is just amazing and he was awesome.
But then, he hatches… another plan!
In a nice piece of symmetry, he plans to sabotage Malabar’s act and instead of Malabar mastering and overpowering wild horses, they will tear out his arms! Mwahahaha!
And did I mention that Nanon ties her husband up to wild horses and then cracks a whip to excite them into a fury? That’s hot. That’s … ok, I should just move on now.
To sabotage the act, all Alonzo will have to do is push that big lever over there … but ohno! However will he do that now that he really has no … hands, instead of just pretending it is so?
Well, he’s manly enough to do it, and he does! Unfortunately, it being a Hollywood film from the 20s, we do not then get to see Malabar’s arms ripped out and Alonzo win his vengeance. In fact, the evil plot is foiled, Alonzo is accidentally killed by the horses, and good and justice is restored to the world. Bummer.
I wish it had been darker and dirtier, but I’ll take what I can get. For all its salacious hinting at deviance, I give it a round of applause.
Or would that be two thumbs up?