The Unknown (1927 film)

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The Unknown
Directed by Tod Browning
Produced by Irving G. Thalberg
Written by Tod Browning (story)
Waldemar Young
Starring Lon Chaney
Norman Kerry
Joan Crawford
Nick De Ruiz
Cinematography Merritt B. Gerstad
Edited by Harry Reynolds
Errol Taggart
Irving Thalberg(uncredited)
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • June 4, 1927 (1927-06-04)
Running time
50 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget $217,000

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.

Chaney did remarkable and convincing collaborative scenes with real-life armless double Paul Desmuke (sometimes credited as Peter Dismuki)[1], whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney's upper body and face.[2]


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.



As with Browning's later sound film Freaks (1932), 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.

Film historian Ken Hanke considers the film to be in many respects the best of Browning's films with Lon Chaney.[3] Burt Lancaster said that Chaney's portrayal in The Unknown featured “one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do.”[4]


For many years the film was missing, until a 35 mm print was located at the Cinémathèque Française in 1968. In 1973, at a lecture given at George Eastman House, Cinémathèque Française 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.


  1. ^ Branton, Bobby (2015). The Ultimate Guide to Knife Throwing. Skyhorse. ISBN 9781632209122.
  2. ^ Soister, John T.; Nicolella, Henry; Joyce, Steve; Long, Harry H. (2013). American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929. McFarland & Company. p. 607. ISBN 9780786487905.
  3. ^ Hanke, Ken. 1991. A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series. New York: Garland Pub. p. 9. ISBN 0824055454.
  4. ^ "Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces", American Masters, Retrieved October 18, 2014.

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