Friday, August 8, 2008

One You Ought to See: The Unknown

The Unknown (1927)
Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, plays a circus performer named Alonzo the Armless. A professional knife-thrower, he uses his feet to dazzle crowds with his dangerous talent. Alonzo falls in love with Nanon Zanzi, a fellow circus performer. She claims to hate the feeling of a man's arms wrapped around her. Everything seems perfect for the pair but Alonzo has a couple huge secrets from his past. The Unknown explores the lengths will a man go to for his true love.

Spoilers Section Below

Alonzo decides to propose to Nanon. There's only one problem. His arms aren't really missing. Years ago, Alonzo had committed a murder. Since then, he's bound his arms under a corset, learning how to use his feet for everyday tasks.

One bright idea. A little blackmail. Some unethical surgery. And presto! Alonzo's got no arms.

All is looking well for Alonzo. That is, until he finds out that Nanon has fallen for a sideshow strongman. Guess she got over her dislike for arms. Our armless antihero decides that this romance will be short-lived. But something goes wrong when he attempts to sabotage the strongman's stunt. Alonzo jumps in front of a bucking horse, saving his love's life, but sacrificing his own. In the end, the strongman and Nanon live happily ever after.

End of Spoilers Section

The movie only runs 63 minutes long. The reason I decided to recommend this movie is because it's wildly entertaining, even for people who don't usually enjoy silent/black-and-white films. There just aren't that many plots as rad as the plot of The Unknown.

The film's director, Tod Browning, is best known for his 1932 feature, Freaks. Freaks deserves a post of its own. Browning got his start with D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) and worked from 1917 to 1939. Spanning from silents to talkies, his career is filled with impressive horror films including the Universal Pictures classic, Dracula .

Chaney and Browning made ten films together. In only nine years. In those films, Chaney played gangsters, a ventriloquist, a magician, a hypnotist, and even a character named "Singapore Joe." I haven't seen that one yet, but I'd bet my oversized gong that it's devilishly racist.

The Unknown recently played at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Sadly, I missed that screening but after hearing lots of praise from friends, it moved to the top of my Netflix queue. This is one of the craziest silent films I've seen. If you're a fan of Chaney, Browning, or entertaining movies, then this is one you ought to see.

[This post is part of Cinema Fist's weekly blog-a-thon. This week's topic: black-and-white cinema.]


Jenni said...

I LOVED this movie! I was lucky enough to see it at the Silent Film Festival with Guy Maddin translating the intertitles from French. That was awesome, but no question my favorite part of the movie was Lon Chaney's performance. He's so intense!

Now you need to see Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee... you'll notice some familiar plot twists!

whitney said...

Don't forget the praise from that Andy Warhol-looking old guy who told us the whole plot in the best 30 minute conversation I've ever had with a stranger.


Hey Whitney-

Number one thanks for the contribution! You may want to link it to though. Thats where the blog-a-thon is officially hosted.

Number two...THANKS FOR THE AWESOME RECOMMENDATION! This movie sounds great. I really can't wait to see it. I'm a fan of Browning, but I've never even heard of this. Off to the queue I go!

elgringo said...

Error 406: The blogger you are trying to reach is unavailable. If you feel you have reached this message by mistake, please hang up, and visit Whitney at

brian said...

i saw this movie like two years ago on tcm. i think i saw another lon chaney movie that same night where he played a clown who couldn't stop crying i think because he was in love with his adopted daughter then he falls in love with this guy who cant stop laughing. it was strange. but i always like movies about the circus.