Though he was a workmanlike director in many ways, producing scores of Hollywood films across genres between 1915 and 1939, there’s a lurid frankness to Tod Browning’s best works that ranks him alongside the most masterful horror directors of the first half of the 20th Century. The eroticism with which Browning directs Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931) defined the vampire as a screen presence. Browning’s Freaks (1932) is perhaps even more highly regarded by connoisseurs of classic horror, combining the illicit thrills of the sideshow with a sympathetic eye for the struggles of outsiders.

The Unknown (1927) is a film that explores Browning’s passion for the circus alongside kinky romance in a heady brew guaranteed to make the censors gnash their teeth. Considered lost until 1968*, this ghoulish tale concerns a murderer (Lon Chaney) hiding out in a “gypsy” circus and concealing the double thumb that will betray his identity by posing as Alonzo the Armless, a stunt performer. His feigned armlessness proves a potential asset when he falls in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the beautiful daughter of the circus’ owner whose crippling phobia of men’s arms has prevented her from getting close to any suitors. Of course things don’t work out neatly, and charming strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) begins to woo Nanon. Alonzo is faced with the realization that, in order to make Nanon his once and for all, it will mean hideous self-mutilation and the deliberate removal of his arms.

*Nota Bene: titling a movie “Unknown” will prove to be a very confusing label when said movie is shelved together with literally “unknown” canisters in a musty French film archive.

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It’s interesting to note that Tod Browning spent a number of years performing in circuses and on the vaudeville stage before embarking on his film career. This first-hand knowledge of the personalities and lifestyles of performers informs his circus-set movies. Though all of the players in The Unknown are designed to be exotic to American audiences**, there’s a nuance to the way in which Browning portrays these people that sets them apart from simple caricature. His attention to detail is evident not just in the richness of the big top scenes and caravan interiors, but also in the fact that he used armless performer Paul Desmuke as Chaney’s body double in key scenes. Desmuke’s legs and feet are shown assisting Chaney with drinking, throwing knives, and even playing guitar throughout the film.

**Additionally, the movie is set in Spain, a favorite “exotic continental” locale for Gothic novels written in England during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

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The Unknown is filled with moments that are not so much telegraphed, as they are shouted through a megaphone. Nanon’s sisterly inclination towards Alonzo – and his mistaken interpretation of her affection as romantic – establishes the certainty of revenge against Malabar within the first minutes of the movie. The opening scene of the The Unknown*** is titillating in its violent, sexual imagery: Alonzo’s act includes shooting Nanon’s clothing off with a gun and then throwing knives at her, all using his feet. By the time the climax of the film rolls around and reveals a new circus act involving Nanon whipping two horses running in opposing directions while shackled to Malabar’s arms… well, only the most naïve viewers won’t anticipate Alonzo’s actions.

***Or at least the scene that opens what’s left of the film. There is evidence of missing and/or discarded footage that builds out certain subplots left ambiguous in the 50-minute version of the movie we have today.

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But The Unknown is not a movie that runs on surprise – its success hinges on suspense, emotion, and sensuality. All of that telegraphing creates an overwhelming sense of fatalism in which these marginalized people are driven inexorably towards destructive events. It is these characters’ reactions to this fate that makes the movie crackle. Alonzo’s alternation between lovesickness and scheming makes him a complex villain, while Malabar’s unwavering devotion to Nanon keeps him from being just another hunky alpha male.

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Physicality is the driving force behind the events of The Unknown, from Alonzo’s telltale thumbs to Malabar’s muscularity, to Nanon’s revealing outfits. The silent style of acting emphasizes smoldering in a way rarely seen in more understated modern film performances. Attraction is signaled with flashing eyes and heavy breathing, either looking to the sky if hopelessly enamored or with chin cast down if seduction is implied. Joan Crawford’s performance as Nanon is brimming with this kind of old school smolder. It’s hard not to feel a certain sympathy for Alonzo in his doomed quest for her love. When he finally realizes that Nanon can never be his, Chaney performs an emotional melt-down using only his face and shoulders that is one of the most tragic – and horrifying – depictions of heartbreak committed to film.

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A kinky and bizarre thriller, The Unknown is a perfect match between story and style. Its overwrought performances, vintage circus setting, and simmering sexuality make it an artifact of an extinct and under-appreciated filmmaking style.

Tenebrous Kate
Tenebrous Kate is a New Jersey-based writer and artist whose work explores her longstanding fascination with all things dark, fantastical, and forbidden. She is the editor of the Heretical Sexts micro-publishing imprint and creator of the webcomic Beer Witch. She has written for publications including Ultra Violent MagazineSlutist, and Occult Rock Magazine and has appeared in a number of New York City pop culture variety shows including Kevin Geeks Out and Meet the Lady. Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire is her long-running blog. Her interests include psychedelic cult films, basement bars, surrealist and decadent art, heavy metal, and all manner of esoteric nonsense.
Tenebrous Kate
@todf I shall remain patient 👍🏻 - 9 hours ago