Daily Archives: December 17, 2018

The Unknown (1927)

*. Lon Chaney. Tod Browning.
*. I believe they collaborated on some ten pictures. They seemed a good fit. David Thomson on Chaney: “surely one of the greatest imaginative artists of silent cinema, undoubtedly most stimulated by Tod Browning.” But why? Some shared vision of what it was they were seeking to express? I don’t feel like I really know either man well enough to say.
*. The Unknown doesn’t usually rank among their best individual work. Chaney is remembered today mainly as the man of a thousand faces, and for roles like Quasimodo and the Phantom. Browning is known as the guy who directed Dracula and Freaks. But none of these are films they worked on together.
*. Though it’s not one of their best known films, The Unknown is still well worth checking out. With regard to Browning’s oeuvre, I don’t rate Dracula as highly as many do, and Freaks is both a stunt and a stump of a picture. The Unknown is a more accomplished film, and since I think Browning was more used to working without sound anyway it’s better placed within his comfort zone.

*. Browning’s fascination with the circus is also front and center, and the way it draws us in with its promise of horrors. Should we really be enjoying such terrible things? I like how at the end a cutaway shows the audience split between feelings of horror and mirth at Malabar’s predicament because they don’t know what’s really going on. Then when the crew come rushing out what do they do? They don’t try to rescue Malabar or stop the horses but instead draw the curtain!

*. As for Chaney, it’s just a treat to see his real face in action. He really plays it like a musical instrument, taking it through whole ranges of emotion, sometimes without a cut. On the DVD commentary Michael Blake points out some of the highlights, but the whole film is evidence of Chaney being one of the greatest actors of the silent era. He’s also a scary looking guy even without any props or make-up. Not for being ugly or disfigured in any way but rather just for exuding a sense of threat, cunning, and power.

*. Though never without vulnerability. This leads to the biggest question The Unknown poses. How do we feel about Alonzo? On the one hand he’s a serial killer, which isn’t good. But he’s also a lover, and goes to extraordinary lengths to win his love, only to be cruelly betrayed. And the “normal” lovers are so dull, who really cares about their story? Wrap the lens in gauze and forget about them.

*. Both Chaney and Browning were also drawn to these stories of transgressive sexual pairings, with love turning to hate and vice versa. The note is struck in the opening scene with Alonzo holding the rifle between his legs and undressing Nanon by shooting at her. Kind of hard to miss the meaning there. Or Nanon’s final appearance as dominatrix tormentor, cracking her whip over the bound Malabar.

*. As with most such tales of grotesque passions it all seems screwed a bit too tight. Nanon’s fear of men, for example, is sexual hysteria writ large. And that operating theatre! It’s a little much, isn’t it? It’s very size is an expressionist distortion. Browning was concerned about how the story could easily slip into comedy, and indeed the line is a thin one.

*. I’m not sure what the title refers to. It had some role, however, in keeping the film lost for years. It was only found in 1968 at the Cinematheque Francaise. The reason it took so long to find is because there were hundred of film cans labeled “unknown” (l’inconnu).
*. Dialogue cards in silent films were usually used sparingly, only giving us information that’s absolutely necessary. But I wonder what Alonzo and Nanon are yelling at each other at the end. She doesn’t look as though she’s telling him to do anything in particular (like perhaps starting the treadmill again). She just looks angry. Does she realize that he always loved her now? And what is he yelling back? That now he has his revenge? But he still loves her, as the finale makes clear. So what choice words are they sharing? Their true feelings have been so close to the surface for so long, what words could express them when they’re finally released?