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.