The Unknown (1927 film)
|Directed by||Tod Browning|
|Produced by||Irving G. Thalberg|
|Written by||Tod Browning (story)
Nick De Ruiz
|Cinematography||Merritt B. Gerstad|
|Edited by||Harry Reynolds
|Release date(s)||June 4, 1927|
|Running time||50 min.|
The Unknown is a 1927 American silent horror film directed by Tod Browning and featuring Lon Chaney as carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless and Joan Crawford as the scantily clad carnival girl he hopes to marry.
The Unknown is by far the most intense and demented of director Tod Browning's films (which include Dracula and Freaks). Joan Crawford always said that she learned more about acting from working with Chaney in this movie than from everything else in her long career put together, and critics often cite Chaney's performance as one of the best ever captured on film. Burt Lancaster always maintained that Chaney's portrayal in The Unknown was the most emotionally compelling film performance he had ever seen an actor give. Chaney also did remarkable and convincing collaborative scenes with real-life armless double Paul Desmuke (sometimes credited as Peter Dismuki), whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney's upper body and face.
As with Freaks, contemporary reviewers were sometimes less appreciative. "A visit to the dissecting room in a hospital would be quite as pleasant," opined the New York Evening Post, "and at the same time more instructive." Modern viewers can discern the same macabre style of this film (and other Browning-Chaney collaborations) in later productions ranging from the 1930s Universal Studios horror films to the 1960s Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents programs.
Alonzo the Armless is a circus freak who uses his feet to toss knives and fire a rifle at his partner, Nanon. However, he is an impostor and fugitive. He has arms, but keeps them tightly bound to his torso, a secret known only to his friend Cojo, a midget. Alonzo's left hand has a double thumb, which would identify him as the perpetrator of various crimes.
Alonzo is secretly in love with Nanon. Malabar, the circus strongman, is devoted to her as well, but she has a strong fear of men's arms and cannot stand being pawed by them, so she shuns him. She only feels comfortable around the armless Alonzo. When she embraces and kisses him, he is given hope, but Cojo warns him that he cannot let it happen again. If she holds him, she might feel his arms.
When Antonio Zanzi, the circus's owner and Nanon's father, discovers Alonzo's secret, Alonzo kills him with his bare hands. Nanon witnesses this through a window. A flash of lightning reveals that her father's killer has a double thumb on his left hand, but she does not see his face. Since Alonzo is believed to be armless, he is not a suspect.
When the circus leaves town, Alonzo has Nanon remain behind with him. He takes extreme measures to try to have the woman he loves. He blackmails a surgeon into amputating his arms. While he is away, however, Malabar's steadfast love finally enables Nanon to overcome her phobia, and she agrees to marry him.
When Alonzo (now truly armless) returns to Nanon, she excitedly tells him the news. Alonzo is shocked and horrified, first laughing, then crying, confusing the couple. He then learns that Malabar and Nanon have been practicing a new act, where the strongman's arms are seemingly pulled in opposite directions by two horses (who are actually on hidden treadmills). During the first performance, Alonzo stops one treadmill in an attempt to maim or kill his rival. When Nanon starts to intervene, Alonzo threatens her with a knife. However, she rushes to calm down one of the horses. Alonzo tries to save her from injury by pushing her out of the way. The horse knocks Alonzo down and fatally stomps on him.
In the original film script and some discarded filmed sequences, Alonzo murders both the doctor and Cojo, to eliminate them as witnesses before he returns to claim Nanon.
- Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless
- Norman Kerry as Malabar the Mighty
- Joan Crawford as Nanon Zanzi (Estrellita in original release)
- Nick De Ruiz as Antonio Zanzi
- John George as Cojo
- Frank Lanning as Costra
- Polly Moran as Landlady (scenes deleted)
- Bobbie Mack as Gypsy (scenes deleted)
- Louise Emmons as Gypsy Woman (uncredited)
- Julian Rivero as Man in Audience (uncredited)
- Billy Seay as The Little Wolf (uncredited)
- John St. Polis as Surgeon (uncredited)
For many years the film was missing, until a 35 mm print was located at the Cinematheque Francaise in 1968. In 1973, at a lecture given at George Eastman House, Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois said the delay in finding the print of The Unknown was because they had hundreds of film cans marked l'inconnu (French for "unknown") in their collection. Several early scenes are still missing, but these do not seriously affect the story continuity.