Tod Browning and Lon Chaney were a match made in heaven. Or hell. It depends on how the ambience of their pictures strike you. The former was the master of the esoteric, the latter the master of disguise. They were the silent precursor to Burton and Depp. Between 1919 and 1929, the macabre match conjured strange and unexplored realms through ten unique films. Browning’s stage was perverse, grim and darkly humorous, and his spotlight illuminated Chaney’s warped and grotesque tenant. The Unknown is one of their greatest and most unsettling creations.
Loosely based on Browning’s own experiences in the chaotic circus life, The Unknown is a dark tale of a runaway criminal named Alonzo (Lon Chaney), posing as an armless performer in a circus, and lusting after the ring master’s daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford).
The plotting of The Unknown unfolds rather conveniently. Nanon’s peculiar repulsion to men’s arms touching her, Alonzo’s idiosyncratic double thumb quirk and Malabar’s convenient stunt with horses pulling his arms in opposite directions, occur rather unnaturally. These moments are blatant because they are so little dressed in either subtlety or within the surroundings of developing relationships. However, finesse is not the grand desire of the picture. Nanon’s peculiar obsession makes for an interesting love triangle. The double thumb is a unique mark of an evil duplicitous nature. The climatic horse stunt is a nail biting finale. The Unknown is a grand circus in setting and form – a delight of shock and intrigue.
Browning is a storyteller of great efficiency, embodying the style of a horror story told around a campfire in the middle of a dense forest. The necessary information is divulged and the tedious, real world ramifications are forgotten in the vain of a chilling Edgar Allen Poe short story. Nanon’s father dies at the unique hands of Chaney, yet there is no emotional turmoil from the event. The police begin to investigate the murder, but when they serve the purpose of highlighting Alonzo’s criminal past, they fade from memory. Browning captures the interesting and relentlessly jettisons the rest.
Cinematography qualifies for this maxim. The camera does little in the way of style and technique rapidly developing around the close of the silent era. Yet, the lack of expressionistic lighting, bizarre sets or lavish camera tricks centres the cruel oddity of the narrative. The technique and style is found within the film – the mysterious doctor, midget accomplice and Alonzo’s adaptable dexterity pepper the realm with an eerie atmosphere.
Finally, the spotlight should be focussed on Chaney for a powerhouse performance of his typical Masochistic Melodramatic variety. The obsessional, dastardly, emotionally tormented creatures of the night were traits brought to the surface through Chaney’s mastery of make-up effects. In this picture, he requires no facade. His roaming eyes deep set in his unique face, his grim grin stretching as Malabar acts on sabotaged advice, and the brutal hysterical laughter after a cruel twist of fate are scarring. Chaney’s creations were always complex. Frightening and capable of extreme malice, yet never fully evil, they were men warped by cruelties of the world and followed their inner desires, however misguided.
The Unknown is a bizarre piece in a series of odd and intriguing collaborations into the beast lurking within the civilised world, either in grotesque form or bubbling beneath the surface.
The corset used to strap his arms to his side is removed. Deep in thought, Alonzo casually lights a cigarette with his feet and puffs away. His process is disturbed by the laughter of his accomplice. To his horror, Alonzo realises he is forgetting how to use his arms and that they are the very things between him and his love. Without a title card of exposition, Alonzo constructs an insane plan.