Sunday, January 22, 2023

To Save and Project ’23: The Unknown (1927)

Tod Browning, the director of Freaks, was a longtime “friend of Stan Carlisle.” (David J. Skal’s Dark Carnival chronicled his connections with carnival sideshows in fascinating detail, but sadly it is only currently available in audio). Browning had the perfect leading man to be an amputee circus attraction in his frequent collaborator Lon Chaney (Sr.). Yet, ironically, this was one of the rare silent films in which Chaney appears without elaborate makeup. Long available in a moderately abbreviated cut, Browning’s fully restored The Unknown screens again during this year’s edition of MoMA’s To Save and Project.

Perhaps the only truly dated aspect of Browning’s film is the Romany (they say “Gypsy”) ethnicity of the Spanish circus troupe owned by Antonio Zanzi. However, the weird sexual issues feel years ahead of the film’s time. In this case, Zanzi’s daughter Nanon has such an aversion to the male touch, she recoils at the sight of mere arms. Somewhat logically, but misguidedly, she feels safe with Alonzo the Armless, the circus’s knife-thrower, who performs with his dexterous feet.

Unbeknownst to Nanon, Alonzo is a murderer, who has concealed his arms, to pass as an innocent-appearing circus performer. However, Alonzo has fallen hard for her. He will kill for her without hesitation, but he will also take more extreme measures.

The Unknown
is not exactly a horror film, per se, but it definitely explores the dark side of human nature, much like the original Nightmare Alley and del Toro’s inferior remake. All three films also share an affinity for carnival geeks and human oddities. This would pear up nicely with the Tyrone Power classic and completely overshadow its remake.

Perhaps most importantly, it features a terrific performance from Chaney—arguably his best, because it does not rely on any makeup or prosthetics (but, evidently, some stunt feet were employed). You can definitely see his heart breaking and rage boiling. He looks a bit like Karloff, rather appropriately.

You can see it all much better in the restored print, because the previous cut (widely “available” online) was based on a European print that had shaved little bits here and there from the dramatic sequences, to shorten the running time. No scenes were cut in their entirety, but the dramatic build-ups were often truncated.

As if Browning and Chaney are not enough to entice horror fans,
Th Unknown also features Joan Crawford (who sort of became a horror icon for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest) in an early role portraying Nanon. It is rather mind-blowing to see her as the innocent ingénue-type, but John George really adds a tremendous pathos as Alonzo’s little person accomplice, Cojo.

The Unknown
is a film made by true legends. It looks great and plays out better than ever. The first screening also had the benefit of Makia Matsumura’s piano accompaniment, which nicely underscored the on-screen moods, without any of the old-timey cliches that scare people away from silent screenings. Highly recommended, especially in its newly restored version, The Unknown screens again next Sunday (1/29) at MoMA.