Saturday, January 14, 2017

#248: The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)

It's been a real pleasure to see several Tod Browning silent films in recent months. One of that rare breed of director to make great films in both the silent and sound eras, Browning's silents are so perverse, funny, modern, and visual, so present, that I don't miss the dialogue. I don't feel like I'm taking a history lesson or looking at something archaic or outside my experience. Browning's silents float outside of time.
The Unknown packs a whole lot of weirdness, action, and beauty into its short 63 minutes, and Browning fills the film with great, memorable faces. Like a lot of Browning films, the principal characters are carnival performers and/or criminals, and there is much unrequited love, disguising of identities, outlandish schemes, and wonderful little details that great directors sprinkle throughout their work. 
The film opens with a performance by the traveling carnival, owned and operated by the brutal Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). A man with no arms, Alonzo (Lon Chaney), assisted by little person Cojo (John George), uses his feet to light and smoke cigarettes, remove his cape, and throw knives at a lovely young woman, Zanzi's daughter Nanon (an early role for then-22-year-old Joan Crawford). Following this act, the strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) comes out and lifts heavy weights and bends unbendable objects.
Both Alonzo and Malabar are in love with Nanon, but Malabar comes on too strong and alienates Nanon, much to Alonzo's delight. Nanon hates being touched by men, to the point of terror, so the only man she trusts is the armless Alonzo. The film implies that Zanzi has been sexually molesting Nanon, leading to her fear. (Kudos to my wife for pointing this out. It sailed right over my dim head.) Nanon gives an impassioned speech about how men have been putting their hands on her for her entire life, and Zanzi goes into a rage when he finds out Nanon has been spending time with Alonzo, whipping the armless man and verbally berating him. How did I miss that?
We soon learn that Alonzo is not the kindhearted fellow we think he is, and Malabar is a more sensitive guy than he first appeared. Alonzo has been using a corset to pretend he has no arms in order to avoid the police. He and Cojo are responsible for a string of robberies, and it is also implied that Alonzo has some murders in his past. The elaborate ruse is a clever one, for Alonzo has two thumbs on his left hand. He becomes obsessed with possessing Nanon, and his evil plans become even more evil when Nanon begins working through her fears and growing closer to Malabar, who begins to understand the source of her fear and drops the overbearing approach. Wild and crazy events ensue, including murder, blackmail, bizarre surgery, wild horses, and treadmills. 
Every one of these characters is more fascinating than the stereotypes they would have been in a lesser filmmaker's movie. Browning spent years working in carnivals, circuses, and the theater before his film career, and he always presents these characters as multidimensional people. Cojo's height is never used as a gimmick or a plot point, and it's his facial expressions and opinions that are Browning's focus in his scenes.
If you only know Joan Crawford as the tough older woman from baroque horror and melodrama, her status as a gay icon, or Faye Dunaway's delightfully cartoonish performance in Mommie Dearest, you'll get a whole new aspect of her here. It's such a treat to see her before she became a movie star and cultural symbol, though her charisma and screen presence are already fully in place. No wonder everyone in this film falls in love with her. She has a great screen rapport with Lon Chaney, too, who I've already written about many, many times on this site. He is, as usual, awesome. I love this movie.

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