Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Unknown (1927)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney
              Joan Crawford
              Norman Kerry
Run time: 49 mins (originally 63)
Studio: MGM
Black & White

The Unknown is an example of a certain kind of horror movie that flourished in the 1910s and ‘20s, one that dealt with deformity and mutilation and fixated on the idea of the ugly as monstrous. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are two obvious examples, but there were many others. It has been suggested (in the documentary film Universal Horror, for instance) that one of the reasons people responded to these films may have been because of the unprecedented numbers of maimed and mutilated soldiers that were returning from the Great War; soldiers who in previous conflicts would have died from their injuries but who now acted as unwelcome reminders of mankind's capacity for senseless cruelty and violence. It was the horror film as catharsis.

The director most associated with this kind of film is Tod Browning, and together with actor Lon Chaney he produced a string of films during this period in which Chaney played a variety of violent and murderous cripples. Browning, who at the age of sixteen had run away to join the circus, was able to draw inspiration for several of these films from his experiences as a traveller with various carnivals, where he had mixed with the extraordinary individuals who made up the freak shows that were popular in their day. Thus he was able to bring to his work a very personal perspective on the theme of physical deformity. Browning certainly acknowledged the horror that his audiences felt at the sight of disfigurement, but he refused to let them have it all their own way - in his most famous film, 1932's Freaks, he subverted expectations by presenting the sideshow freaks as basically honourable and decent people, while it was the 'normal' characters who were evil and monstrous, exploiting the freaks for personal gain. While it was quite possibly an expression of natural sympathy on the director's part, this theme of exploitation might also have been Browning's indictment on a society that came to his films in the hope of justifying its prejudices and assuaging its guilt. The theme of exploitation is also present in The Unknown, where the central character, an evil amputee, isn't quite what he at first appears to be.

The film opens with crowds arriving at Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, where Alonzo the Armless (Chaney), "sensation of sensations...wonder of wonders", is about to perform his death-defying knife act with Zanzi's daughter, the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford). Using his feet in lieu of arms, Alonzo fires bullets and hurls knives at the moving target against which Nanon is standing. On hand to assist with placing the weapons between Alonzo's feet is the dwarf Cojo, dressed as the Devil. The act is a great success and is followed by another of the circus's highlights: Malbar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), who performs incredible feats of strength.

Malbar, it transpires, is in love with Nanon, a fact that doesn't sit well with Alonzo, who harbours his own infatuation for the young woman. Nanon tries to reassure Alonzo that he has nothing to worry about - brute strength just doesn't interest her - but her eyes tell a different story: she is clearly attracted to the strongman despite her claim that she has had enough of being 'pawed' by men, whom she regards as 'beasts'. Alonzo offers his sympathies - "Always fear them," he tells her. "Always hate them." - while in secret confessing to Cojo that he intends to have Nanon all to himself. It might be easier if Malbar were the kind of brutish male that Nanon professes to hate, but in reality he is a thoroughly decent chap, and Alonzo knows it. Declaring his love, Malbar offers Nanon hands to caress her and strength to protect her; but, drawn to him though she is, she still flinches from his touch. 

Nanon is clearly a confused and conflicted young woman, a fact that the jealous Alonzo hopes to use to his advantage; but even he seems unaware of the depth of her pathology and is taken aback when Nanon suffers what appears to be a psychotic episode: railing against Malbar's inability to love her without touching her, she wishes to God that she could cut the hands off every man. She recovers when she realises that her words might be deemed insensitive in the presence of an amputee.

Alonzo, however, continues to assure her of his friendship, a friendship that Nanon's father, Zanzi, (Nick De Ruiz) violently disapproves of. When Alonzo presents Nanon with a shawl as a gift, Zanzi rips it from her shoulders, accusing Alonzo of putting 'crazy ideas' in his daughter's head, 'again'.  In a scene that is remarkably uncomfortable to watch, Zanzi proceeds to punch the helpless Alonzo and beat him repeatedly with a cane until Malbar comes to the cripple's rescue.

At this point in the film we might begin to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Alonzo, but in no time at all he is encouraging Nanon back into the arms of the strongman, knowing full well that girl's aversion to being touched is no simple phobia. Convinced that by playing on her pathology he will bring her round to his way of thinking, Alonzo allows himself to relax in his caravan with Cojo, and the truth about him is revealed. Alonzo is an imposter - he is not an amputee at all, but secretly has both arms bound to his torso beneath a corset. It sounds contrived, but the revelation comes as a genuine surprise. As he contemplates the beating he has suffered he remarks that now it is time for Zanzi to learn that he, Alonzo, also has hands.

The opportunity comes sooner than expected -   when Zani accidentally discovers Alonzo's secret, the imposter is forced to strangle the circus owner in order to ensure his silence. Unfortunately, the murder is witnessed by Nanon through the window of her caravan. Although she does not see Alonzo's face, she does see the double-thumb on his right hand, a genetic defect that would make him easily recognisable as her father's killer should his arms ever be revealed. Not only is Alonzo an imposter, but he is also a fugitive. When the police gatecrash Zanzi's gypsy funeral they are convinced that the circus owner's murderer is also responsible for a series of crimes committed in other towns where the circus has been.

Nanon fears ruin if the circus is sold to pay her father's debts, but Alonzo promises to look after her and take her away from the things he hates. To this end, they remain in lodgings in the town while the circus moves on. Alone, Nanon can only think of Malbar and her joy is as obvious as Alonzo's hatred when it transpires that Malbar has also elected to remian behind and is willing to wait for Nanon to overcome her fear of being touched.  Delighted by this sudden good fortune, Nanon embraces and kisses a secretly devastated Alonzo.

Later, Cojo, (who is in on Alonzo's secret) insists that Alonzo must never let Nanon touch him again, in case she discovers Alonzo's hidden arms. Alonzo threatens Cojo, telling him to keep quiet and reminding him, with a mad gleam in his eyes, that there is nothing he will not do to keep Nanon. He intends to marry her, but Cojo points out that Nanon is likely only to feel hatred when she discovers Alonzo's deception on their wedding night. Alonzo, fully in the depths of his delusion, insists that the girl will forgive him; but Cojo reminds him that it was Alonzo's deformed hand that Nanon witnessed crushing the life out of her father.

Fully in despair, Alonzo appears to forget that he has arms and despite being free of his corset he continues to use his feet to light his cigarettes. When angry, he clenches is toes instead of his fists and uses them to rub his tired eyes. He is now so used to the deception that it has become his first nature. It is an extraordinarily clever and convincing scene, all the more so when you realise that Chaney was collaborating with a real-life armless double whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects in frame with Chaney's upper body. The fact that it isn't noticeable in the least is testament to their skill.

When Cojo laughs and points out that Alonzo has forgotten about his arms, Alonzo's mood changes from despair to madness. A plan begins to formulate in his mind, one that fills Cojo with horror and causes the dwarf to beg him to reconsider. It is clearly something that the Alonzo has contemplated before, but the sheer insanity of it has held him back. Now, however, he has reason to see it through. The plan involves blackmailing a doctor to amputate his arms.

We never learn exactly what it is that the doctor has done to allow Alonzo to blackmail him so easily, but it's obviously of a sufficiently serious nature, because the doctor agrees to perform the surgery without delay; but while Alonzo is recovering from this extreme and desperate act of self-mutilation, Nanon and Malbar are growing ever closer. Nanon is even beginning to show signs of overcoming her phobia. They decide to get married and both agree that they want their close friend Alonzo to attend the ceremony.

On Alonzo's return, Nanon is of course delighted to see him but can't help noticing that there is something a little...well, different...about his physique. But never mind that - she is just happy to have him back. Now they can get married. Of course, Alonzo misunderstands, thinking that Nanon is referring to him, and for the briefest of moments you see a flicker of real hope in his eyes for the first time; but it is soon dashed when Nanon reveals that her fiancé is none other than Malbar the Mighty, the very man Alonzo had hoped would repel her with his touch. The moment when Alonzo discovers the truth and realises that he has mutilated himself for no good reason is both heartbreaking and genuinely chilling. We watch as his expression slowly morphs from one of crushing defeat to one of naked, insane rage. Bizarrely, Nanon and Malbar fail to notice that Alonzo's reaction is one of pain and fury; when the full implication of what he has done to himself sinks in, Alonzo begins laughing madly, which the two lovers choose to interpret as a sign of his happiness at hearing their news. 

Realising that his reaction is in danger of bretraying him, Alonzo composes himself while Malbar, who is performing in a theare now, explains that he intends to perform a feat of strength in which he has a horse hitched to each hand while they pull in opposite directions on a treadmill. Alonzo, now fully insane with jealousy, asks what would happen if the treadmill broke or stopped suddenly. Malbar informs him that the horses would tear his arms from their sockets. Information received, Alonzo begins to plot his revenge and the film moves towards its thoroughly thrilling climax, in which Alonzo does indeed sabotage Malbar's act.

The Unknown is an intense film that contains what many regard as the most emotionally compelling performances of Lon Chaney's career (Joan Crawford apparently stated that she learnt more about acting from Chaney than from anyone else in her long career). It is also noticeable for its many dark undertones. The 'unknown' of the title appears to refer to the unspecified sins and secrets of the past that dictate the characters' actions and determine their emotional responses and obsessions: we have Alonzo and his possibly murderous past (is he in fact a serial killer?); then there are the unknown crimes of the doctor who performs the amputation; and, most of all, we have Nanon. Though it is never stated explicitly, the implication is certainly there that her pathology is the result of sexual abuse, possibly at her father's hands. Nowadays, of course, such a revelation about a character would scarcely cause a raised eyebrow, but back in 1927 the very suggestion must have been shocking indeed.

As far as the visual side of things is concerned, there is little to mention here. I'm not sure that Browning has ever been considered a great stylist, but his concerns are clearly elsewhere. As a study of obsession and jealousy, The Unknown is undoubtedly a great film, and Bowning succeeded in elicting fine performances from all his cast, not just Chaney. He certainly wasn't afraid to deal with disturbing subject matter or confront his audience with things that they would rather not face; and the fact that he succeeded in exploring uncomfortable issues in stories that on the face of it might seem ludicrous is enough to guarantee him a unique place in cinema history. He is certainly one of the great directors of the era and, Freaks aside, The Unknown is probably his best regarded film.

(The Unknown was thought for many years to be a lost film until a copy was discovered in 1968. Unfortunately, it is incomplete. Although the film’s coherency is unaffected, the missing scenes apparently include Alonzo's murder of both the doctor and Cojo, which would explain why the dwarf disappears about three quarters of the way through the film.)

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