Friday, June 2, 2017

Before I Die #601: The Unknown (1927)

This is the 601st movie I've seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Tom Browning

Boy, for a film produced in 1927, this was one sick, twisted look at a diseased mind. It was also surprisingly compelling.

The movie centers around Alonzo (Lon Chaney) - a circus freak without arms whose act consists of his using his feet to throw knives and shoot a gun at a female assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford). Alonzo has a deep love for Nanon, but a competitor for her affections is the macho strongman of the circus, Malabar. As much as Alonzo would love to take Nanon as his own, he is keeping two deep secrets: one is that he does, in fact, have both of his arms, which he keeps tightly strapped to himself when in public. The other is that he is a serial murderer and thief who uses his circus character as cover from the police. Alonzo does, eventually, have one arm surgically removed, in order to both cover up some evidence of a past crime and to become closer to Nanon, who has a severe dislike of "grabby" men and their invasive hands. After convalescing from this procedure and returning to Nanon, however, Alonzo discovers that she has fallen for Malabar and plans to marry him. Alonzo, in a quiet rage, attempts to sabotage one of Malabar's dangerous performances of strength. His assassination attempt is foiled, though, when Nanon jumps in to assist Malabar, forcing Alonzo to sacrifice himself to save her.

When I look back at the list of great movies of the silent era, which was about to hear its death knell when The Jazz Singer would be released later that year, The Unknown stands out as a bold and shocking gut-punch to mainstream sensibilities. While other popular films such as Metropolis, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunrise had taken on some dark subject matter, they were done with a certain high-minded artistry or at least couched within more familiar and comforting settings. The Unknown, however, takes as its focus a truly dark and warped character, placed within the odd and inherently creepy setting of a traveling circus, and has him thinking black thoughts and committing dark deeds throughout the story's length. Five years after The Unknown, director Tom Browning would direct Freaks, which is very similar in tone and setting, and would eventually become his most famous (infamous to some) movie. This earlier work can be seen as the prototype for a certain brand of horror movies and even TV shows  that would come many decades later (it put me in mind of a few Tales from the Crypt episodes from the 1990s). For this, it has to be recognized as trailblazing.

The tale is, typically of the silent era, rather thin in terms of character depth or sophistication. Yes, there is some sinister mystery and morbid curiosity generated by Alonzo's dual nature as a deceitful murderer while also showing a fierce desire for Nanon. But it's not as if his love is anything more than a greedy desire to possess her, just as he wishes to possess the goods of those whom he robs and kills. The other primary characters - Nanon and Malabar - do actually show a dash of development, but it is of a rather sentimental variety.

Crawford as the assistant, Nanon, and Chaney as the sinister
Alonzo. Chaney, usually covered in makeup for his starring
roles, knew how to put on a wicked gaze.
A major saving grace of this movie, and what makes it still watchable today, is the performance of Lon Chaney. This was only the second Chaney picture I've ever seen (the first being The Phantom of the Opera), but he was mesmerizing. Chaney was known for being a makeup guy, but he actually had a face that was full of character on its own, made of of striking angles, strong bone structures, and dark, deep-set eyes. It was a face made for evil leering, and leer he does in this movie. It reminds me of how there aren't enough "star" actors today who have faces with actual character, but instead the handful of true leading men are handsome in fairly generic, universally appealing ways. It's been far too long since we've had a Lon Chaney or a Humphrey Bogart become a leading actor who can carry entire movies.

It bears mentioning that one other little detail may urge potential viewers to give this movie a shot: it's running time of a mere 50 minutes. There is really no dilly-dallying here. From the jump, things get moving and stay moving. This is probably how such movies should go. When a story is predicated on fairly simplistic characters, despite being in odd setting and in the midst of shockingly horrible deeds, the strange novelty can wear off quickly (I'm thinking of Rob Zombie's wacko horror movies like House of a 1,000 Corpses and the like).

Certainly ahead of its time, The Unknown still has an eerie, fringe and cult quality to it that fans of schlock horror are likely to still enjoy. It won't be for everyone, to be sure, but film historians and devotees of the genre are sure to find some value in this 90-year old rarity.

That's 601 movies down, only 586 films to go before I can die.