The Unknown is a 1927 American silent horror film directed by Tod Browning and featuring Lon Chaney (London After Midnight) as carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless and Joan Crawford as the scantily clad carnival girl he hopes to marry.
Alonzo, one of the star attractions of Zanzi’s gypsy circus, is an “armless wonder” who hurls knives with his feet at his attractive assistant Nanon, Zanzi’s daughter. In reality, Alonzo is a perfectly armed thief, with the unique distinction of having two thumbs on one hand. He keeps his secret with the aid of his midget friend, Cojo, who ties his arms behind him with a corset. Nanon, having been pawed over by men for years, has developed a perverse hatred of the touch of men’s hands. She feels quite comfortable around the “armless” Alonzo, while she is repelled by the virile strongman, Malabar.
One night, after a row with Zanzi over Nanon, Alonzo strangles him, and Nanon sees only the double-thumbed hand of the murderer. With Zanzi dead, the circus disbands and Alonzo promises to care for Nanon. Her increased affection for Alonzo gives him new hope, and he decides to propose, but Cojo warns him that on their wedding night she will recognise the hands of the man who murdered her father.
Realising that Nanon is more important than his arms, Alonzo contacts a former criminal partner who is now an eminent surgeon. He threatens to expose the man unless he surgically removes Alonzo’s arms. While Alonzo is recovering, Nanon has developed a new friendship with Malabar, who keeps his hands at a safe distance from the frightened girl. One day when she slips, Malabar catches her, and she suddenly realizes that her fear of hands has been foolish. She accepts Malabar’s proposal of marriage, but they wait for Alonzo to return for the ceremony.
On his return, Alonzo finds Nanon in Malabar’s arms and is nearly driven mad with rage. The resolution of the film is one of the most shocking in silent cinema…
The Unknown is by far the most intense and demented of director Tod Browning’s films. Joan Crawford, appearing aged 19 in a very early film role, always said that she learned more about acting from working with Chaney in this movie than from everything else in her long career put together, and critics often cite Chaney’s performance as one of the best ever captured on film. Burt Lancaster always maintained that Chaney’s portrayal in The Unknown was the most emotionally compelling film performance he had ever seen an actor give. Chaney also did remarkable and convincing collaborative scenes with real-life armless double Paul Desmuke (sometimes credited as Peter Dismuki), whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney’s upper body and face.
As with Freaks, contemporary reviewers were sometimes less appreciative. “A visit to the dissecting room in a hospital would be quite as pleasant,” opined the New York Evening Post, “and at the same time more instructive.”
“There is no gainsaying the fact that this story is exceptionally tense melodrama that grips the interest and fascinates the spectator, but it is decidedly gruesome. Chaney’s large following, however, has been educated to expect him in such roles, and certainly he has never given a finer performance. The manner in which he is shown using his feet as normal persons do their hands is remarkably well done and his facial expressions are wonderful–he uses no eccentric make-up in this role.” Moving Picture World
“Although it has strength and undoubtedly sustains the interest, The Unknown… is anything but a pleasant story. It is gruesome and at times shocking, and the principal character deteriorates from a more or less sympathetic individual to an arch-fiend…Mr. Chaney really gives a marvelous idea of the Armless Wonder, for to act in this film he has learned to use his feet as hands when eating, drinking and smoking. He even scratches his head with his toe when meditating.” The New York Times
“A good Chaney film that might have been great. Chaney and his characterizations invite stories that have power behind them. Every time Browning thinks of Chaney he probably looks around for a typewriter and says ‘let’s get gruesome.'” Variety
Modern viewers can discern the same macabre style of this film (and other Browning-Chaney collaborations) in later productions ranging from the 1930s Universal Studios horror films to the 1960s Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents series.
A body double was obviously used for some of the more elaborate scenes with Chaney performing manoeuvres with his feet, but for several of the scenes Chaney did have to perfect picking up wine glasses and other impressive acts of dexterity with his feet. THE UNKNOWN was a modest production, costing only $217,000 for its 35-day shooting schedule. It earned respectable profits of $362,000.
For many years the film was missing, until a 35mm print was located at the Cinematheque Francaise in 1968. In 1973, at a lecture given at George Eastman House, Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois said the delay in finding the print of The Unknown was because they had hundreds of film cans marked l’inconnu (French for “unknown”) in their collection. Several early scenes are still missing, but these do not seriously affect the story continuity. Director Tod Browning loosely based the story on a real event of his circus days, where a man has masqueraded as an acrobat to evade the police.
Related: London After Midnight