“Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them!”
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George, Nick De Ruiz, John St. Polis, Paul Desmuke (uncredited)
Screenplay: Waldemar Young and Joe Farnham, based upon a story by Tod Browning
Synopsis: In Madrid, the star of the gypsy circus owned by Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz) is Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney), a knife-thrower and trick-shooter who uses his feet to perform his act. Zanzi’s own daughter, Nanon (Joan Crawford), works as Alonzo’s assistant; her perfect confidence in him allows her to stand motionless and smiling as his bullets and knives strike a wooden backdrop bare inches from her body. Another popular act is that of Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), the circus strongman. Malabar is in love with Nanon but, although she is attracted to him, she cannot bear to be touched by any man, and recoils when Malabar tries to hold her. Nanon finds comfort and security in the friendship of Alonzo, not realising that he too loves her passionately, and is bitterly jealous of Malabar. In his guise of Nanon’s unselfish counsellor, Alonzo encourages the fear that creates a barrier between her and the strongman. When a drunken Zanzi attacks Alonzo, warning him to stay away from Nanon and beating him savagely, it is Malabar who intervenes. Alonzo thanks him for his assistance, but this display of Malabar’s strength and physical prowess only increases his hatred. Cruelly, Alonzo urges Malabar to show his love for Nanon by embracing her; as he anticipates, she is frightened and repulsed. Watching, Alonzo gloats that no-one will have Nanon but him… However, unknown to everyone except his friend and companion, Cojo (John George), Alonzo has a second secret, one far greater than his passion for Nanon: he has arms, but hides them from the world because his fingerprints are in the official records; while the double thumb-digit on his left hand is also known to the police. Each evening, when it is safe, Cojo is entrusted to free Alonzo from the elaborate harness that keeps his arms strapped to his body beneath his clothing. Under the cover of darkness, Alonzo and Cojo walk out, the former concealing his arms beneath a cloak. Zanzi, still furious over his rough treatment at the hands of Malabar, confronts Alonzo, clearly intending to deliver another violent beating. He snatches away Alonzo’s cloak—and so learns his secret. He does not live to reveal it, however: an enraged Alonzo hurls himself upon Zanzi, fastening his hands around his throat… Through the window of a nearby caravan, a horrified Nanon witnesses the fatal attack upon her father. From where she stands she cannot see the face of his murderer—but she does see the double-thumb on his left hand…
Comments: One of my favourite games is to tell some unsuspecting soul that the most perverted movie ever was made in 1927. They never believe me, of course, which gives me the opportunity to show them The Unknown—and have the fun of watching their jaw hit the floor.
The Unknown is yet another of the films of the silent era that was long believed lost but which, thankfully, was rediscovered during the late 1960s. (In this case, or so the story goes, it was overlooked for decades as it sat in the storage vault of the Cinémathèque Française, because it was surrounded by unidentified film material all marked “unknown”.) While we can now see its influence upon subsequent generations of film-makers – it is, for example, explicitly evoked in Alejandro Jodorwosky’s Santa Sangre – the film remains obscure despite all that has been said and written about the careers of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney.
Nevertheless, I’m prepared to go out on a limb and declare The Unknown to be their joint masterpiece: a perfect vehicle for displaying their remarkable talents, and a perfect crystallisation of their separate but strangely symbiotic hang-ups.
Thus, with respect to Browning, we find ourselves dealing with deviant psychology and the non-supernatural macabre in the abnormal-is-normal setting of the circus which, if not used better here than in Freaks, is at least used less uncomfortably; while for Chaney, The Unknown not only showcases one of the frankly masochistic roles to which he was drawn, and at which he excelled, but contains perhaps his best performance simply as an actor—without elaborate makeup or costuming to either enhance or obscure his art.
The prints of The Unknown that exist today are not complete, unfortunately: the film originally ran about an hour, whereas today most versions run between forty-five and fifty minutes, taking into account the usual projection-speed issues. Luckily, nothing critical seems to have been lost; although there are one or two points now obscure, as we shall see.
The story opens in “old Madrid” – though when the police show up, they start taking fingerprints, so not so very “old” – in the gypsy circus of Antonio Zanzi, who acts as ring-master.
The star performer of the circus is Alonzo the Armless, who does trick-shooting and knife-throwing using his feet. His act has him sitting at one extreme of a rotating platform – rotating so that everyone in the audience can see – with a wooden backboard set up at the other, in front of which stands beautiful young Nanon Zanzi. The first part of Alonzo’s act has him shooting away Nanon’s clothes—stripping her down to her undergarments; the second part finds him outlining her in knives. Nanon, serene and smiling, stands without flinching as the deadly weapons thud into the boards all around her.
Though Alonzo and Nanon are the stars of the show, another popular performer is Malabar the Mighty. His strongman act is far more conventional, however, consisting of weightlifting and the bending of metal bars.
Though many women in the audience ogle Malabar’s physique and make their interest in him obvious, he only has eyes for Nanon. She, however, cannot bear to be touched. Though she too finds the strongman physically attractive, and although she is emotionally drawn to him, whenever he puts his hands on her – or even just uses his hands, such as for bending bars in his act – it repulses her. Malabar is, understandably, confused and frustrated by the mixed signals that Nanon sends out.
But Malabar is not the only man who loves Nanon. Alonzo himself is walking a tricky tightrope with her, being as passionately devoted to her as Malabar, perhaps more so, but at the same time only too painfully conscious that she views him only as a friend and protector—and that her trust in him has its basis in the fact that he does not have hands. Aware of this, the viewer can only flinch through those moments in which Nanon hugs and kisses her “friend”, and even forgets herself so far, in her ranting about “men’s hands”, to wish that God would strike the hands from all men. She is immediately appalled at her own cruel thoughtlessness, and begs Alonzo for his forgiveness.
Audience sympathy is automatically with Alonzo, but it is soon evident that when it comes to building and keeping a barrier between Nanon and Malabar, there is little if anything he won’t stoop to. Moreover, as the one person in whom Nanon has confided about her neurosis, Alonzo is uniquely qualified to interfere in the most effectively damaging way.
“All my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me, to paw over me,” Nanon tells Alonzo bitterly. “I have grown so I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.”
Alonzo’s response to this confession is to tell Nanon she should fear men’s hands—always.
Subsequently, he looks on with deep satisfaction – albeit satisfaction built upon violent hatred of Malabar – as Nanon recoils in disgust from the strongman’s touch, before retreating to the sanctuary of his, Alonzo’s, caravan.
Nanon is modelling for Alonzo his gift to her, a rich embroidered shawl, when they are violently interrupted by a drunken Antonio Zanzi, who orders the frightened Nanon from the caravan – ripping the shawl from her shoulders as she flees – before turning on Alonzo with a whip…
As I have said, existing prints of The Unknown are incomplete, and this is where we feel it: as things stand, there is no explanation for Zanzi’s violent objection to Nanon’s friendship with Alonzo, so we are left to figure things out for ourselves. It is possible that the bits of that subplot which are missing are so not because of print damage, or some similar passive reason, but because the original material was considered too confronting even by the relatively broad standards of the pre-Code era.
There is an ominous clue in what few specifics we are given of Nanon’s loathing of being touched. As she declares repeatedly, she hates all men’s hands; but this she says angrily. It is only her father whom she obviously fears. The implication is shockingly evident.
And there is an even worse construction we can put upon this situation. We will hear later of the extent to which Zanzi and his circus are in debt, and it is not out of the question, I think, that he is planning on meeting that debt by pimping Nanon out—or perhaps, has done so in the past—before, that is, she became an asset to the circus as a performer, and before Alonzo and Malabar were around to look out for her.
Support for this theory may be found in Zanzi’s otherwise confusing objection to Nanon spending time with Alonzo. While we might expect him to prefer for her the company of a considerably older, armless man – as opposed to the young(er) and hunky and demonstrably intact Malabar – the accusation which Zanzi throws at Alonzo before attacking him is that he puts “crazy ideas” into Nanon’s head: encourages her fear, in other words. Obviously a working-girl who can’t bear to be touched, who struggles and runs from men’s hands, won’t be much of a cash-cow.
Zanzi’s attack upon Alonzo is vicious, though the armless man does his best to defend himself, holding the enraged circus-owner off with his feet. But it is not without good reason that Cojo runs for help from Malabar. When he finds Zanzi beating Alonzo brutally with a whip, Malabar pulls him roughly away, disarms him and kicks him out of the caravan. In spite of everything, Alonzo is anything but grateful for this display of physical prowess on Malabar’s part; and it is through clenched teeth, and with a dark double meaning, that he promises to repay the strongman—and makes good on his promise straight away, speaking to him with seeming sympathy of his love for Nanon:
Alonzo: “You are lucky: you have arms and the strength she loves. Go take her in your arms…”
Malabar takes his advice—with precisely the outcome Alonzo anticipated. “No-one will have her but me,” he tells Cojo.
And it is at this moment that The Unknown plays its most unexpected card as, after carefully closing the shutters and the door, Cojo undresses Alonzo and helps him out of the corset-harness that straps his arms to his body…
I wonder if audiences of 1927 saw that coming? Probably not: a genuinely armless man would have been perfectly in keeping with most of Chaney’s previous roles. The actor’s willingness, even eagerness, to suffer for his art is well-documented, of course, and even if the corset wasn’t as uncomfortable as his face-distorting prosthesis in The Phantom Of The Opera or the harness that turned him into a legless man in The Penalty, it must have been quite uncomfortable enough.
But The Unknown has one more surprise for us. As Alonzo massages the blood back into his numb limbs, the camera shows us that on his left hand, his thumb has two distal phalanxes.
“What would the police give to know I have hands…and who I am?” he remarks to Cojo. “Zanzi may be another to find how I have them,” he adds, hinting at the crime for which he is, by such drastic means, in hiding.
And in fact, Zanzi finds out in very short order—not that the knowledge does him any good. Seeing Alonzo and Cojo coming back from their night-time walk (we understand that this must be a regular venture, following the unstrapping), Zanzi confronts them angrily. Alonzo tries to evade him and enter his caravan, but Zanzi reaches out to seize him—instead pulling away the cloak with which he has been hiding his arms.
The moment of revelation is almost Zanzi’s last. The next instant, Alonzo has borne him to the ground, his hands about his throat…
As she broods in her caravan, Nanon hears a disturbance—and looks out of her window in time to see a dark figure hunched over her father, strangling him. She cannot see the man’s face, but there is enough light for her to see the deformed thumb on his left hand. Nanon screams—and turns away her face just as Alonzo looks up…
Nanon’s scream brings the other circus performers running, but not before Alonzo has slipped into his caravan.
There is a police investigation, of course—one coinciding with a gypsy funeral ritual which involves the burning of clothes; while, nearby, Alonzo plays the guitar with his feet and sings. The police get nowhere, although they know that the same hands which committed the murder are responsible for a series of thefts in the towns through which the circus has passed, and so collect fingerprints from the circus troupe. Smiling sardonically, Alonzo offers his toes…
In the wake of Zanzi’s death, the circus is sold over Nanon’s head to pay his debts (she’s not happy about it, though presumably it’s preferable to my suggested alternative). While he has no immediate financial suggestions to offer, Alonzo does promise Nanon that he will always take care of her.
The two of them and Cojo take rooms in a local boarding-house, while the other performers depart the town. The last to go is Malabar, who leads away his caravan as Nanon watches sadly from a balcony. Inside, when she asks Alonzo why they, too, are not leaving, he responds cryptically that he wants to take her away from the things she hates.
But Alonzo hasn’t quite achieved his goal. There is a knock at the door, and Cojo opens it to admit Malabar, who has returned to give Nanon a parting bouquet of flowers, and to assure her of his enduring love. He is doing well for himself until the last moment, when he tries to put his arms around the hitherto welcoming Nanon—and this time, when she recoils, he takes justifiable offence and leaves.
Alonzo is not slow to follow up, murmuring in Nanon’s ear about how sorry he is Malabar put his hands on her. Nanon is sufficiently moved to embrace Alonzo, and to kiss his cheek: an interlude which prompts Cojo to utter a grave warning as soon as he and Alonzo are alone…
Cojo: “You must never let her touch you that way again—she will feel that you have arms!”
John George’s performance as Cojo is one of The Unknown‘s strengths, even though his role is reactive rather than active: a visual Greek chorus, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction. It is Cojo alone who understands the full dynamic of what is going on; every nuance of Alonzo’s interaction with Nanon, in light of the truth about his arms—and her father’s death. Sometimes he is amused as he watches Alonzo fool and manipulate others, or drive the wedge between Nanon and Malabar ever deeper; but as Alonzo’s obsession with Nanon grows, his amusement becomes alarm. This scene, in which Cojo tries unavailingly to catch Alonzo’s eye and convey a warning as he allows Nanon to hug and kiss him, is one of John George’s finest; even better is soon to come.
Of course, messengers with bad news are never very popular; and, after all, Cojo is the one person who knows Alonzo’s secret; secrets. As Alonzo reacts in anger to his admonitions about Nanon, in particular to his blunt and unwelcome declaration that he can never marry her, as the truth would immediately be discovered, Cojo – who knows his temper, after all – is frightened into swearing a solemn oath never to reveal any of those secrets to anyone. Reassured about Cojo’s silence, Alonzo declares passionately that there is nothing he will not do to win Nanon – nothing – and that he means that literally we are very soon aware.
It is, ironically, Cojo who puts a drastic solution into Alonzo’s head when, as he contemplates his problems, Alonzo unthinkingly uses his feet to wipe his eyes, and then to light and smoke a cigarette; so accustomed is he to acting as if he has no arms. Cojo cannot help laughing about it—but the smile is wiped off his face when Alonzo suddenly conceives a two-birds-with-one-stone plan to hide his secrets forever, and to make Nanon his own.
Many years ago, it transpires, Alonzo knew a surgeon: a man who also has secrets in his past. When he receives a letter from Alonzo demanding a meeting or else, and reminding him of “Algiers”, the surgeon is expecting to be blackmailed. He’s right—but he is hardly prepared for the nature of Alonzo’s demands…
Of course—a double limb amputation is not an operation that someone gets over quickly; and Alonzo is forced to leave Nanon alone for many weeks as he recuperates.
Except that she is not alone.
It turns out that even that last rebuff wasn’t enough to drive Malabar away altogether, and his fidelity is finally rewarded when, not knowing that he is watching her, an obviously unhappy Nanon cradles his flowers in her arms and kisses them. She is both mortified and joyful when she realises she isn’t alone; she finally brings herself to admit to Malabar that she cares for him; yet even after this, she cannot keep herself from flinching back when Malabar assumes his habitual hands-on-hips stance.
And the penny drops…
And while there are many reasons to love The Unknown, the brilliance and daring of Browning and Chaney most of all, of course, this – THIS – may be its most enduring triumph.
As a female film-watcher, I am frequently appalled by just how many films over the decades—even some today—espouse what we might euphemistically call “the caveman approach”; implicitly or explicitly suggesting that if a woman resists a man’s advances, the best thing he can do is force himself on her; that she will inevitably give in, and be grateful he didn’t listen to her.
Imagine finding the perfect riposte in a Lon Chaney film from 1927!
Now, clearly – very clearly – Malabar is anything but the sharpest knife in the drawer…but it turns out he’s something much better: a genuinely nice guy. When it finally dawns on him what Nanon’s problem is – that she has, indeed, a real and serious problem – he responds by keeping his hands to himself. He backs off. He positions himself as her friend. He gives her the opportunity to learn to trust him. He lets her come to him, and in her own good time.
We should note, too, despite our sympathy with Alonzo, that when he speaks of his future with Nanon, it is in terms of owning her. Malabar uses no such language.
After some weeks of their new understanding, we find Nanon and Malabar out walking together. Obviously they have grown very close. Nevertheless, Malabar continues to keep his distance physically until Nanon trips while walking down some stairs. Instinctively, Malabar catches her in his arms and, just for a moment, holds her close—before putting her down and backing away, dismay written all over his face, the fear that with an inadvertent touch, he has undone all his patient forbearance.
But—everything’s all right; better than all right, as Nanon shyly confesses. But even then, though Malabar eagerly holds his hands out to Nanon, he leaves it to her to take them in her own…
Almost before we know it, the two of them are making wedding plans; although Nanon insists they must wait until Alonzo comes back, so that he can be there; because, you know, he’s been so kind to her…
Eventually Alonzo does come home—seeing nothing but his future with Nanon. She embraces him warmly, and immediately notices that something is different: Alonzo is thinner, surely? Has he been sick?
Alonzo: “Not sick…but I have lost some flesh.”
(That joke may not work any more, I guess: at the time, people dieting didn’t speak of losing weight, but of losing flesh.)
Alonzo painfully misinterprets Nanon’s delight to see him; still more her unguarded remark, made more to herself than him, that, “Now we can be married!” But when she runs off, to, “Call him!”, a dreadful misgiving begins to dawn in his mind.
Nanon and Malabar go out of their way to confirm that misgiving, too—and to demonstrate just how completely Nanon has overcome her fear of Malabar’s hands. “I did what you told me, Alonzo,” explains Malabar. “I took her in my arms.”
Alonzo starts to laugh, and Nanon and Malabar laugh too – not for any particular reason – just because they’re so happy. But Alonzo’s laugh goes on and on, growing louder, and wilder, until he is literally shrieking with laughter—until at last his face convulses into what almost looks like murderous rage…
Alonzo then collapses, confirming Nanon’s suspicion that he is ill; which of course explains his disturbing behaviour, too. After a time Alonzo recovers himself, again rejecting Nanon’s suggestion of illness—but admitting that he had a pain. He lifts one foot and places it lightly on his own chest, explaining that it hurt just there, “Like the lash of a whip.”
Apart from planning for their wedding, Nanon and Malabar have been addressing their financial future—putting together a stage-act that (we gather) becomes part of a variety-show. This is built around a new way for Malabar to show off his amazing strength, and involves two horses running on treadmills in opposite directions, while Malabar, in between them, holds a harness of each. Nanon, meanwhile (though mostly eye-candy), occupies a platform at the back of the stage, from where she urges the horses on by cracking a whip.
Nanon demonstrates for Alonzo the wrist-straps by which Malabar is connected to each harness, pointing out that the way they wrap around, the strongman cannot let go of the horses even if he wanted to. Alonzo is deeply interested, but worried about the obvious dangers involved. Malabar himself is confident, in his own strength, that the rehearsals have been sufficient. But Alonzo persists, asking what would happen if the treadmills broke down or mis-functioned?
Malabar: “If that happens, the horses would tear the arms from my body!”
Seeing Alonzo’s face change, Nanon scolds Malabar for worrying him. Rehearsals have been fine; why should anything go wrong?
Alonzo is backstage when Malabar and Nanon make their debut. The act goes well, attracting applause and admiration from the audience.
Then, as Malabar’s battle with the horses reaches its peak, Alonzo sidles over towards the man whose job it is to mind the controls of the treadmills. He explains that he was supposed to get Nanon’s robe for her, but – for obvious reasons – was unable to reach it. Would he mind…? The man glances at the stage, where everything is going as planned, and then does as asked. After all—he’ll only be gone a moment…
The Unknown is a film that can catch even the informed viewer of pre-Code movies off-guard; a film which offers, via slow reveal, some astonishingly aberrant material—from the sexual neurosis of its heroine to its amputation-for-love, and with plenty of murder, madness and mayhem in between. The overall effect is as delightful as it is shocking.
While this is not one of Lon Chaney’s more physically extreme roles, the illusion of Alonzo’s armlessness is very cleverly maintained. Some of the various foot-stunts were performed by Chaney himself, while the rest were achieved via careful physical collaboration with Paul Desmuke, a stage and circus performer who was born without arms, and whose own knife-throwing act almost certainly inspired the character of Alonzo. (Although it was only after working on The Unknown that Desmuke incorporated a human target into his act.) Only the initial scene with Alonzo and Nanon performing was achieved through trick photography; the rest is one man or the other really using his feet. The effect is so convincing that there are moments when we, like Alonzo himself, forget that he has arms and hands.
This effortlessness is important, too, because for once the viewer is not distracted by Chaney’s trademark self-torture (though that does come into it), and able to concentrate instead upon his acting. Of all Lon Chaney’s roles, Alonzo may be the most satisfyingly complete: a complex character who becomes increasingly frightening as his capacity for violence and the depth of his obsession is revealed, yet who gains and holds audience sympathy for, probably, far longer than he should, without the slightest taint of sentimentalism.
It is also a refreshing change that, while again Chaney’s character suffers the miseries of unrequited love, ultimately there is no soft cop-out, no knee-jerk redemption brought about by “the power of love”. On the contrary—far from making things better, Alonzo’s passion for Nanon finally escalates into amour fou of the most literal kind, a terrifying force that brings destruction upon a number of those unlucky enough to get in its path.
(Browning and Chaney must have realised how perfect a showcase The Unknown was for the latter’s mix of talents: it can hardly be a coincidence that Chaney’s character is called “Alonzo”.)
However, it is a significant part of The Unknown‘s appeal that Chaney’s isn’t the only contribution worth watching. I have praised John George already, while the other performance that needs to be highlighted is that of Joan Crawford as Nanon. Even at this very early stage of her career, Crawford’s star-power is evident; while this film marks one of the few times that Lon Chaney was cast opposite an actress with a personality strong enough to hold her own against him. Furthermore – and the fact that the screenplay takes every opportunity to put her into a skimpy costume notwithstanding – Nanon isn’t just “the chick” here, but an important character whose situation and choices drive much of the action.
Norman Kerry is more problematic, but even here the film wins out. Though he was a popular screen presence in the silent era, Kerry was never much of an actor, and he is also completely unpersuasive as a professional strongman; yet the character of Malabar is so well-conceived and written that Kerry too manages an effective performance. In fact, he gets one of my favourite moments in the film, after Malabar’s accidental touch of Nanon, when he guiltily whips his hands behind his back, and keeps them there.
(To be fair to Norman Kerry, he was pretty much the David Manners of his generation, having already been completely overshadowed by Lon Chaney in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera before he made The Unknown; he certainly gives his best performance of the three here.)
As far as Tod Browning’s direction goes, probably by this point in his collaboration with Chaney all he had to do was point the camera and sit back; but there’s no doubt about the quality of the work he got out of the supporting cast. The circus setting finds Browning at his most comfortable, and while the focus is at all time upon the actors, there are all sorts of interesting visual details throughout—my favourite being the late-film shot of Alonzo framed against a poster advertising a performance of Othello.
However, except for Lon Chaney’s performance, the greatest strength of The Unknown is its screenplay—a taut, streamlined piece of work, with no unnecessary diversions, such as additional circus acts, and no comic relief. Instead, the scenario concocted by Tod Browning and Waldemar Young concentrates upon the developing love triangle and its inevitable climactic disaster. And while this may seem contradictory, one of the most important things about this film is its occasional lack of intertitles. Intertitle management is a design aspect more important to the success of silent productions than is often realised, with films sometimes made confusing by too little information, or conversely interrupted with too much, or too often.
But in The Unknown, the acting is allowed to do the heavy lifting. Three scenes, in particular, stand out in this respect—all three dominated, unsurprisingly, by Lon Chaney. First, there are the twinned confrontations between Alonzo and Cojo, and Alonzo and the surgeon, in which he makes his intentions known: in neither case is anything explicitly revealed by the intertitles; instead, everything we need to know is conveyed by Chaney’s body language and gestures, and the stunned and horrified reactions of the others. Meanwhile, the scene in which Alonzo discovers that his drastic step has all been for nothing is surely one of the most painful things ever committed to film, as his incredulous disbelief first overwhelms him, and then carries him to the very brink of insanity.
And ultimately, the true power of The Unknown lies in the way in which it succeeds in drawing the viewer, step by step, into Alonzo’s consciousness; into an emotional and psychological realm where having both your arms cut off as a gesture of love makes perfect sense. It is only after the event that we realise just how far into the darkness we have travelled.
Want a second opinion of The Unknown? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.
Paul Desmuke with his wife / assistant / target, Mae, circa 1933.
This review is part of the B-Masters’ collective cry of, “WTF!?”