Lon Chaney's The Unknown is a remarkable melodrama with several good performances, though Lon certainly does dominate. Lon plays Alonzo, a carnival performer who has strapped down his arms pretending to be armless, throwing knives with his feet. He keeps secret even from fellow carnies that he actually has arms, assisted in his duplicity by his sinister minion or sidekick, the dwarfish Cojo (John George).
He is in love with a beautiful bareback stunt rider (an early & powerful performance by Joan Crawford) who has a phobic horror of being held in any man's arms. So in spite of a handsome rival, the circus strongman Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), Lon's character has the greater chance of getting the girl just so long as she never finds out he indeed has arms.
His disguise as an armless man is to escape detection by the law. As the story unfolds, the knife-thrower's murderous villainy is increasingly evident, though his love for Nanon is real enough making him a figure of pathos, untilmately of horrific pathos, as well as of extreme villainy.
For its day the special FX are pretty phenomenal. Story-wise it may seem the climax devolves a little into a "Perils of Pauline" sort of thing, but with the increasingly strange Alonzo at center stage, & where his obsession leads him, remains too psychologically twisted & fantastically macabre to be too much like a the Perils. It is almost certainly author-director Tod Browning's greatest work after Freaks which likewise builds around circus life.
This may be one of the few silent films that doesn't require a viewer to get used to outdated conventions to be deeply pulled into it. It's ultimately a horror tale of the type Tod Browning worte so well, in books as well as for films, & which Lon played with equal genius.
There are good extras on this DVD too. The silent film fan or super-nerd the distributors found to do the commentary track does a way interesting job by just knowing far more about his subject than anyone with a life would ever know. There's also a short Turner Studios biography on Lon narrated by Kenneth Branagh.
Intriguing, boring, & historically significant is the inclusion of a slim reconstruction of the narration-line, through stills, of the Chaney/Browning lost vampire film London after Midnight (1927) aka The Hypnotist. The progression of stills is spiced up with an old fashioned silent film score.
London After Midnight is one of the most famous of the vast number of lost silent films, the last known copy having been destroyed in a fire in 1960, & rumors of its greatness have perhaps enlarged due to its irrecoverability. The stills & narration pretty much answered for me the long held question: Is the loss of that film a ferocious tragedy? Seems not, despite that Lon's make-up for the beast is campily exciting.
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