Film Review: The Unknown (1927)

Also known as: Alonzo the Armless (working title)
Release Date: June 3rd, 1927 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young
Cast: Lon Chaney Sr., Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 63 Minutes, 49 Minutes (BFI print), 49 Minutes (alternate cut)

Review:

“You are right, Alonzo… brute strength does not mean everything to all women. Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me… to paw over me. I have grown so that I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.” – Nanon

Lon Chaney Sr. was really the first iconic horror actor. Some others dabbled in the genre and were in multiple films but none made the impact that Chaney did at the time. He was the original King of Terror.

Even though he often time played facially disfigured characters, he would also modify his body to fit the role. In this film, his face was normal but he worked with his arms bound in a corset for most of the picture, as his character was believed to be armless.

Now there is a twist where you find out that he indeed has his arms but he goes on to get them chopped off for the love of a girl.

The story is dark and twisted and it’s very evil and very primal. It is still hauntingly effective and has aged just about as well as a silent film can.

Chaney plays Alonzo, a circus performer that uses his feet to do a myriad of tricks. The reason for the ruse is because he is wanted for a murder but all that is known about the suspect is that he has a double thumb. To hide this deformity, Alonzo goes through life with his arms bound tightly under his clothing.

He falls in love with Nanon, however, and she has an issue with men’s hands touching her. She feels safe around Alonzo because he has no hands to grab her. After a kiss, Alonzo decides to have his arms removed so that Nanon doesn’t find out his dark secret. Plus, she witnessed a man with a double thumb murder her father.

However, after spending weeks recovering, Alonzo returns to discover that Nanon has overcome her fear and is marrying the circus strongman.

The story is insane but it’s damn good and entertaining. It fits a lot into the short running time.

Also, Nanon is played by a very young Joan Crawford, well before she became a superstar.

The film is well shot and the tone is perfect. This is one of the best Chaney movies and Tod Browning utilized the actor’s talents well. The film builds suspense at the right pace and the big finale is a satisfactory payoff.

I love this movie and it really should be considered a silent horror classic. While it’s not as well known as it should be, it’s pretty exceptional and a spectacular production for its era.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other collaborations between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr.