Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife thrower in a travelling carnival/circus who is passionately in love with his glamorous assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford). She is completely oblivious of Alonzo’s love and is more interested in turning away the affections of Malabar, the strong man, because he’s a rather tactile fellow, and she has a morbid fear of men’s hands. However, unbeknown to everyone except his faithful assistant, Cojo, Alonzo is actually in possession of his arms and keeps them strapped to his body under his clothes in order to give the illusion of being armless. What’s more, not only has he got two arms, he has three thumbs (I hope you’re following this) and, leaving a trail of murder behind him, cannot let anyone find out about this as it would reveal him as the murderer. As he pursues his love of Nanon, Cojo points out to Alonzo that they will never be able to be together as, on their wedding night, she will find out that he has arms after all. Realising this, he blackmails a renowned surgeon into amputating his arms – after all, he can use his feet in a similar way so he won’t miss them.
Oh, the things a man will do for the love of a woman. Like amputating his arms. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it. No? Oh, OK then. Obviously things don’t quite go to Alonzo’s plan in this rather bizarre film from 1927, but then I guess you’re not surprised given the plot summary of the first half of the film.
This may well be Chaney’s best role, and is certainly one of director Tod Browning’s greatest efforts. Browning is perhaps best known today as the director of Freaks (1932) and Dracula (1931), but it is his silent work that shows him at his best, especially when directing a film with a carnival setting such as this one. This is a grotesque little film, and one that has a finale which wouldn’t be out of place in the “torture porn” cycle which has dominated the horror genre over the last decade, and still pulls quite a punch (excuse the pun) nearly eighty years after it was made. Aside from Chaney, the film is also notable for Joan Crawford’s great performance in the role of Nanon, the object of Alonzo’s affections, with the New York Times stating that she “gives a most competent performance” (Hall, 1927: 17). That’s actually quite a complement for the New York Times.
Thought lost for decades, The Unknown is a great (and often horrifying) watch. It can be found only on region 1 DVD as part of “The Lon Chaney Collection” which comes with an entertaining feature length documentary on Chaney, a reconstruction of the lost film London By Night (Tod Browning, 1927) and two more feature length silent Chaney classics: The Ace Of Hearts (Wallace Worsley, 1921) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon, 1928). Highly recommended.