Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Unknown

"So for Alonzo there was an end to Hate called Death . . . . and for Nanon, an end to Hate . . . . called Love."

The quote above is the last title card of the silent masterpiece The Unknown. The film, released on June 4, 1927, starred Lon Chaney Sr. as Alonzo, Joan Crawford as Nanon, Norman Kerry as Malabar the Mighty, and John George as Cojo, was directed by Tod Browning, and based on a script written by Waldemar Young.

The Unknown is considered by most critics to be the best of the Tod Browning/ Lon Chaney collaborations, which also included Wicked Darling (1919), The Unholy Three (1925), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife thrower in the Zanzi circus. Joan Crawford is Nanon Zanzi, the beautiful daughter of Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), owner of the circus, and she is also Alonzo's assistant, and his greatest desire. Malabar the Mighty, the circus strongman, played by Norman Kerry is also wooing Nanon. Based on this premise the film sounds like the plot was stolen from a grocery store check out stand romance novel. But in the hands of Browning it becomes a brilliant macabre mystery story.

"The thing you have to most careful of in a mystery story, is not to let it verge on the comic. If something is too gruesome and too horrible, it goes beyond the limits of the average imagination and the audience just laughs." Tod Browning once said this about the essence of writing a mystery but with this story the viewer finds themselves walking on the edge of the straight razor, laughing until they see the blood. There is a sequence in this film that captures the genius of Browning the director and Chaney the actor. It becomes simple enough, with Alonzo and Nanon alone in Alonzo's wagon. They flirt with one another, Nanon with certain innocence, Alonzo like a man in love. Everything is going quite well for Alonzo until Zanzi finds them together and forces Nanon to leave and then gets into a fight with Alonzo. This is the moment in the movie that struck a chord with me. We had learned a earlier that Nanon is afraid of being touched by men, their hands hold nothing but terror for her, which is why she likes Alonzo. It's quite possible that Nanon's frigidity and fear of men's hands is a result of her father sexually abusing her. When Nanon's father finds she and Alonzo together his over reaction is one more of jealously than paternal concern, particularly when the two begin to fight after she leaves. Malabar the Mighty hears the commotion and comes to Alonzo's aid. After pulling Zanzi off of Alonzo and throwing him out, the two men converse until the object of both of their desires passes by. Malabar revels his deep love for Nanon which unsettles Alonzo and his darker side is revealed when he advises to go to Nanon and embrace her. As expected, when Malabar does this, he his hostile rejected by Nanon, much to the delight of Alonzo.

Just when you think it's safe, the premise has been revealed, and this movie isn't going to get any stranger, it is revealed that Alonzo is not really armless after all, and not only that, he has two thumbs on his left hand, an abnormality that ties him to a murder. The dramatic way the arms of Alonzo are revealed in this pivotal scene, is only surpassed by the single close up Browning uses of Alonzo's double thumbs on his left hand. The sudden and spectacular twists that Browning uses in the film are techniques of shocking an audience that he picked up in his days with the circus. With these new physical revelations about Alonzo, the door has been opened for his sinister dark side to reveal itself. In the next scene Alonzo and Cojo are returning to Alonzo's wagon when they are confronted by an angry Zanzi. When Zanzi confronts Alonzo about there earlier fight, he finds out that Alonzo has arms, in a panic Alonzo attacks and strangers Zanzi, the act being witnessed by Nanon, who only saw that the killer had two thumbs.

Alonzo has done away with one of the men keeping him from his beloved Nanon and with the circus moving on while he and Nanon stay behind, he believes that he finally has her all to himself. It is then that his companion Cojo informs him that Alonzo can never have Nanon because she will find out about his arms, and more importantly, she will see his double thumbs. Chaney and Browning really come alive in this scene. Alonzo, sitting in a chair, deep in thought, extends his arms out to the sides of his body as if subconsciously amputating them. Still pondering what to do, Alonzo picks up a cigarette with his toes, puts it in his mouth and lights it, forgetting that he even has hands. This scene was shot with a stunt double named Peter Dismuski, who was and armless man, Browning brought in to be the legs and feet in the scenes Chaney. The genius behind this scene is that there are no existing photos or notes indicating how the scene was actually shot, and everyone involved took the secret to the grave, making it a great moment of movie magic.

Alonzo has decided that the only way he can be with Nanon is to actually have his arms removed, so he and Cojo take off to find a surgeon to perform the gruesome act. After the surgery and period of recovery, Alonzo returns to Nanon only to find that Malabar returned during his absence and that he and Nanon have fallen in love. When Nanon and Malabar reveal their love and intention to marry to Alonzo, what Chaney is able to do with just his face and torso, is quit possibly one of the most compelling and exhausting performances by any actor in the history of film. Alonzo's eyes flash, flicker, roll back into his head. Rage consumes him, then a cry of anguish escapes, triggering the memory of trauma that resides in all of us. And despite the fact that Alonzo is a sinister figure, at this moment becomes sympathetic.

The story telling brilliance of Browning and Young is revealed with another twist. At the same time Alonzo becomes a sympathetic character, he suffers a full on psychotic split. When he learns of that Malabar the Mighty's new act involves him having a horse tied to each of his arms that are pulling in two different directions. The trick is that the horses are on tread mills and the feet of strength and endurance is just an act. The terrifying moment is when Alonzo realizes that if the tread mills are stopped the horses will run and will tear Malabar's arms off. Alonzo's final sinister act is set in motion but when Nanon steps in front of one of the horses in attempt to get it to stop, she is almost trampled, but is saved by Alonzo who is trampled to death in the process.

Despite the dark themes of The Unknown this is a must see for any film lover and one of the great films of the silent era. Browning and Chaney are one of the great actor/ director teams in cinematic history, comparable today to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

No comments:

Post a Comment