Monday Editor’s Pick: The Unknown (1927)

by on January 9, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Jan 16 at 8:00* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner


Monday nights at Film Forum continue to to be the hottest ticket in town as the work week commences. “The Silent Roar: MGM 1924-1929” continues through February 6. Don’t miss Imogen Smith’s fabulous Alt Screen feature, here, and definitely don’t miss this week’s feature, which quite possibly one-ups Browning’s own Freaks in balls out insanity – and misfit poignancy.


Michael Koller for Senses of Cinema:

As in any art form, the history of cinema contains many works that are, for whatever reason, overlooked and underrated. Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) is definitely one of these works, and it is, without hesitation, a modern masterpiece for the current century. Browning made a remarkable series of films with the extraordinary, ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, Lon Chaney, of which The Unknown is the pinnacle. This delirious, outrageous l’amour fou – a chilling, genuinely disturbing and haunting melodrama – is what cinema should be all about: a suspension of belief in the face of a story that defies all logic yet rings true to the deeper human emotions.
Browning’s great strengths as a director lay in his ability to draw memorable performances from his cast and to create a believable world despite the mounting absurdities of the plot and the world in which his characters lived. He has the audience believe in the fantastic possibilities of the cinema. It is these skills that also make The Unknown great. The film relies on a finely balanced performance from Chaney to succeed. The Unknown is a truly horrifying film that takes us into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. All of the characters are simple beings who are driven by their emotions: the circus owner bullies, the hunky strongman loves, the attractive Nanon lives in fear, and Alonso oscillates between obsession and hatred. Browning’s interest in outsiders and the rejected was no doubt nurtured by his time in the circus, and he well understands the audience’s attraction to this image of the dark underbelly of carnival life, hidden by the masquerade of gaiety. His heroes were not the attractive and glamorous found in most movies, but those misbegotten beings normally hidden from our sight and treated in a condescending manner.



Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

As with Browning’s Freaks, one wonders how MGM ever got conned into making this resplendent study in morbid psychology. As much a casebook as a horror movie, it tells the truly marvellous tale of Alonzo the Armless Wonder (Chaney, of course), who uses his feet to perform a circus knife-throwing act. Only masquerading as armless (wanted by the police for a strangling, he’s concealing the telltale evidence of a hand with two thumbs), he falls for pretty Estrellita (Crawford), the bareback rider. But she has a trauma about being touched by men, so he besottenly decides to have his arms amputated, only to find a handsome strong man emerging as a successful rival for her heart, cue for a fiendishly vengeful Grand Guignol finale staged during the strong man’s act. One of the great silent movies, astonishing in its intensity, this is by far the best of the remarkable series of Browning/ Chaney collaborations.


Elliott Stein for The Village Voice:

This deliciously morbid Grand Guignol piece is set in a Spanish circus where armless Lon Chaney tosses knives with his feet at the young Joan Crawford and what follows is one of the oddest stories ever filmed by a major studio. The great Chaney’s rendition of corporal distortion surpasses his considerable physical feats in other pictures.



Michael Sragow for the New Yorker:

There’s no odder number on Tod Browning’s boulevard of broken nightmares than this supremely creepy descent into the pits of masochistic romance. It stars Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife-thrower who’s virtuosic with daggers but all thumbs with the sexy yet man-fearing Nanon (Joan Crawford), the target in his act and object of his desire. They should be a perfect match – Nanon hates the pawing of male hands – but this partnership is made in hell. Browning and Chaney were masters at exploiting fascinating freakishness; this sixty-one minute flight of horrific fancy depends on a series of grotesque switcheroos that both jolt the nervous system and instill a long-lasting queasiness. Browning skillfully counterpoints the pulse of a warped psychology with the wistful strains of stunted infatuation.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula) was one of the earliest practitioners of cinema-as-neurotic-hallucination. Of the films he made in collaboration with the like-minded Lon Chaney Sr., this 1927 feature is perhaps the strangest and most compelling



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The opening erotic dance is rather alarmingly loaded: Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) and Nanon (Joan Crawford) on a rotating platform under the big top, a fine female form outlined by hurled daggers, a live sex show, just about. Circus Zanzi is a place of such subterranean spectacle, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) bends iron bars and flexes his biceps for the gypsy beauty, but she’s repelled by masculine thrust. Lacking “beastly hands,” Alonzo is the one man Nanon can come near; away from her eyes, he removes his girdle to reveal the fugitive strangler’s murderous limbs, tightened by unrequited love. Unnecessary surgery to the rescue! “If God intended us not to masturbate,” says George Carlin, “he’d have made our arms shorter.” Tod Browning runs his rousing, cruel joke on the mutilated artiste and the frigid muse along the lines of Freud’s description of Oedipus in The Uncanny, “the self-blinding of the mythical criminal.” (Another Sigmund gag: From a shot of Alonzo being hugged platonically by Nanon, we cut to the dwarf cohort Cojo, chortling and puffing on a cigar.) Experimenting with filmic form as much as with body shapes, Browning places gauzy filters on the lens to heighten the artificiality of the “normal” romance, and uses a matron’s adjustment of her opera binoculars to stage a rare tracking shot. The angularity of the gypsy caravan is contrasted with the sterility of the operating room, where the film’s most chilling moment takes place: Chaney slowly running his palm along his shoulder to pantomime the surgeon’s saw. Afterwards, the heroine hugs him again and is startled by his thinner frame. He smiles: “Not sick… but I have lost some flesh.” The endless contortions of human desire provide an imagist goldmine for Buñuel and Bataille and Jodorowsky, the wacky-macabre, horse-stretched climax gets a most expressive tribute in Strangers on a Train.



David Cairns for Moving Image Source:

The Unknown (1927) is Browning’s first fully circus-based drama, however, and something is unleashed. It’s often said that this film has the strangest plot on record, and a bald summary does much to explain its skewed appeal. It’s easy to see why this film wowed them in 1927 (it continues to flabbergast). What’s surprising is the amount of grief Browning gets as a director. Browning, it’s said, delivers great bizarre ideas, but ruins them with flat and shoddy filming. Yet The Unknown fairly crackles with compositional power and moves with force despite a generally static camera. In Chaney he had found an actor who could dramatize absurdities with total conviction. While the star had a talent, visible in all his films, for contorting his body to add weight and tension to any frame, Browning must be credited with a congruent ability for fashioning extraordinarily dramatic shots around his actors’ bodies.


Rick Worland in The Horror Film:

Of Browning and Chaney’s ten movies together, perhaps none better expressed the strengths of their respective talents than the known, a fantastic work of psychosexual grotesquerie. The astounding plot presents a fever dream of phallic symbolism, castration anxiety, and sexual terror. Typically, the film’s circus/carnival setting becomes a liminal location between public and private personae, artifice and reality, distraction and terror – one that has defined recurrent preoccupations of the horror film since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari established the motif. Although The Unknown s little indebted to the distorted chiaroscuro of German expressionism, Browning’s sylization through careful composition and editing combines with Chaney’s most masochistic character for memorably disconcerting efects. Working together, Chaney and Browning managed at once to define and broaden the parameters of the horror film.


Cullen Gallagher for the L Magazine:

It is only fitting that Browning learned filmmaking under the guidance of D.W. Griffith, for whom he was an actor. Whereas Griffith’s innovative close-ups of Lillian Gish’s face to reflect her pure soul, Browning used Lon Chaney’s entire body to convey the impurity of his.
From the 1910s to the 1930s, Browning created a gloriously gruesome body of work that romanticized villainy and perversity as no other director previously had, and few have since (fellow Griffith-trainee Erich von Stroheim is a close rival). As opposed to the virtuous, idealistic heroes of Douglas Fairbanks that were so popular at the time, Browning focused on anti-heroes who were often criminals, or otherwise licentious, unsavory characters. Consider Chaney’s role in The Unknown (1927): he’s a vicious strangler hiding out in a circus, posing as an armless knife-thrower, who falls in love with the lovely lady who performs as his target (a young Joan Crawford). Like author Fredric Brown (whose twisted, carnivalesque Madball would have been perfect for Browning had he not stopped making movies in the late 1930s), Browning had a twisted, paradoxical sense of justice. The punishment always fits the criminal (rather than just the crime), and in The Unknown, Crawford suffers a sexual neurosis that makes her afraid of all men — except for Chaney, that is, because (she thinks) he has no arms and can never lay a hand on her.
Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney’s brilliance was hardly limited to facial expressions, and his malleable physique and fearlessness of playing villains made him the perfect model for Browning. They would go on to make eight pictures together, and the The Unknown is arguably the apex of their collaboration, which was too soon cut short by Cheney’s untimely death of lung cancer in 1930.


Guy Maddin introduces a screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with a defense of melodrama, transcribed by The Evening Class:

During our waking hours—which, are now, but they’re getting sort of crepuscular; they’re getting pretty nocturnal here—but, during our waking hours, during daylight, we must behave, right? If we see someone we lust after, we’re not always just allowed to grab him or her. If we see someone we hate, we’re discouraged from punching them. If we’re feeling sad, it’s frowned upon to wail and weep openly. We all have to comport ourselves in kind of a repressed state. Such are our sad waking hours.


But, in our dreams, at night when we sleep in our dreams we are liberated. Our selves, our story selves, are liberated. Our ids are loosed upon our little dreamscapes and—if we’re lucky—we get to grab the person we lust after; we get to hit the person we hate; we get to wail and scream and moan all we want without anyone scolding us and, also, we’re given access. Little repressed fears and anxieties grow into monstrous terrors in our dreams and our true selves become so uninhibited. I use the word ‘uninhibited’ pointedly because melodrama is always aligned as something sort of grotesque or a tasteless exaggeration of real life. If that’s all melodrama were, it would deserve that slag; but, I think a melodrama isn’t a true life exaggerated—that would be bogus—it’s true life uninhibited, just like our dreams.

There’s nothing more truly crazily uninhibited than a Lon Chaney / Tod Browning collaboration. When I see one of Lon Chaney’s little allegories of dismemberment, I am Lon Chaney. He seems to remove just about every member except, well, there’s one that never gets removed and that’s always meant to drive a plot. So I’m hoping you’ll all identify with Lon and Tod and that sole surviving member and me tonight while I narrate and bring to you—Tod Browning’s The Unknown!


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