The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Under Wraps: The Mummy and His Complex

From the first, Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s 1932 The Mummy almost slaps you across the face with its audacity.

It’s actually so bold that I daresay a lot of people (me, for about 21 years, included) mistake its stylistic flourishes for primitiveness. In terms of the sheer patience that the film assumes on the part of the audience, it equals Hitchcock, in my humble opinion. After all, Frankenstein opens with a grave robbing and Dracula quickly gets to ghostly coachmen and bats. The Mummy, instead, aligns the viewer with the overly eager British archeologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) whose cavalier spirit dispairs over the “bits of broken pottery” he has to catalog before getting to the fun stuff, like the unopened blasphemous casket containing a necromantic scroll and the preserved dead guy. Although, in all fairness, who can blame him on that?

So, the senior archeologists leave the young assistant alone with the loot (I’m an intern—believe me, this is never a good idea). We know what’s going to happen. Casket opened. Ancient curse called down. It’s ALIVE!

But it’s amazing how long Freund toys with us. Norton looks at his work. Gets up. Walks to the casket. Sits back down. Gets up again. Slowly, slowly opens the casket, pulls out the scroll. I can’t stress this enough: it’s a really long time, although it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels leisurely, but taut, I think. When I last watched it with an eye towards this, though, I almost couldn’t fathom how long it is. It reminds me a lot of the famous scene in North by Northwest before the cropduster comes, when Cary Grant is waiting by a bus stop for about six minutes and we’re still riveted.

But the key to the suspense of this opening sequence resides in the way it’s filmed. I lost track of the jump cuts. The camera leaps back and forth from different sides of the young archeologist. These cuts mostly don’t threaten to disorient the viewer since we know the layout of the small hut. Instead, the editing aims to perturb the audience, just slightly. They make you uneasy without you totally understanding why. (Seriously, Jean-Luc Godard, Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back.)

And then the key shift comes after this shot, when the young man finally opens the casket.

And then there’s a cut to this.

WTF is THAT, do I hear you ask? The entire audience has no idea. It’s almost totally abstracted. Cutting to something completely out of scale in order to shock, confuse, and to suggest a seismic shift. The universe is out of balance. It’s a formalistic uh-oh. (Now you, Michelangelo Antonioni, Papa Freund called, he wants his technique back.)

Then, slowly, the head of the archaeologist bobs back into the frame and the camera tilts quickly down to the breeched casket and to Norton’s hands poised over the scroll.

It’s a vertiginous shot, full of bravado and discreet discomfort (on the part of the audience members). It bears the hallmarks of genius for me. And the mummy hasn’t even come to life yet.

Once Norton starts to read, Imhotep does promptly reanimate. Again, you have to appreciate how minimalistic and patient this moment seems in contrast to the theatrics of the other Universal pictures. No histrionic music wailing over the soundtrack (Freund didn’t care for the score that was written for the movie, something I learned via Richard Freeman’s article “The Mummy in Context”). We just hear the faint whisper of a chant as the mummy awakens.

Cliff Alberti’s Immortal Ephemera blog also does a nice job of explaining the admirable restraint of the trailing bandages and the off-screen monster, so I won’t repeat it, but I would like to give a shout-out (pun intended) to Bramwell Fletcher’s terrific shriek, perhaps the best non-female scream in the classic horror pantheon.

I’d also like to express my admiration for the first sight of the risen mummy. The camera pans from the working archeologist to the hand of the undead thing, reaching for the scroll.

Suddenly, the living and the dead, two things that should always be separate, are joined together by a simple turn of the camera. Shudder, shudder. A masterful opener.

A scene later, Karloff’s terrific entrance as the Ardath Bey is also troubled with jumpy cuts. These shots occur in rapid succession.

First, I imagine that Freund was having a little in-joke here. Frankenstein’s monster’s first entrance in Whale’s 1931 film resembles this one very much, with a flurry of jump cuts following the monster’s appearance in a door. However, here again, the cuts serve a pattern. They disturb the default continuity of time and space that we’ve come to expect as viewers. What you think you know about everything—Freund seems to say—forget it all. The dead are walking. And I’m going to show you a thing or two…

Bazin and his Mummy

“For the first time, the image of a thing is bound up with its duration, like a mummy of change.”

These are the words, or rather my translation of the words, which André Bazin, the insanely influential French film theorist, used to describe motion pictures. Like a death mask or a fingerprint, movies are existentially tethered to the things they portray.

In terms of semiotics, the science of signs, fingerprints, death masks, and photographs are indexical signs because they refer back to their original, the thing that they’ve preserved. In other words, we don’t say, “Wow, that picture looks like Boris Karloff.” It is Boris Karloff we’re seeing and we know that the image is proof of his existence. (I’m totally indebted to another great critic, Peter Wollen, for this, BTW. I didn’t cook this up on my own!)

Back to Bazin and the mummy. Bazin believed that movies perfectly realized and attained what humans had always craved to do through art: to defeat death by preserving something forever through its appearance. This need for a “victory over time” is what Bazin called the “mummy complex.”

Holy Isis and Osiris! Doesn’t this sound familiar?

What is the monstrous Imhotep trying to do literally, if not defeat time by creating a copy, a very, very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon? Unlike Dracula, who basically wants nourishment (and sex), our Imhotep wants true, enduring, eternal love which he can only attain by mummifying the woman he loves. Reunion isn’t enough. It’s preservation he wants. He doesn’t just want companionship. He wants a companion of his own creation yet somehow representative of the woman he adores, lovingly embalmed.

To this end, let’s look at the introduction of Helen Grosvenor which includes another of Freund’s clever touches. One of the movie’s roving tracking shots trundles around the museum exhibit of the Princess’s belongings until we finally see Karloff, as Ardath Bey, looking down at the mummy of his dead lover.

 

The back-and-forth shot reverse shot stresses his need for a connection with the relics. He bitterly wants for this husk and this garish portrait to be the woman he loves, magically preserved by the customs of his culture in their attempts to cheat time and death. And they do come painfully close. She’s there, but really, she is elsewhere. And this is when the camera swish-pans to the right. This cut, in turn, brings on a strange scrolling panorama of Cairo, which whooshes by before stopping on a close-up of Helen by some ornamental palms (after another disguised cut).

Some special bond, transcending space and time, does connect the mummy case to this girl, we know at once, thanks to this elaborate “scrolling” panorama shot, which I consider a pretty creative visual manner of representing something like reincarnation. But, what a poor likeness! The crude sarcophagus portrait pales in comparison to the real thing, the human face that cinema can deliver to us: Zita Johann palpitating and forever alive.

The movies can embalm time, as Bazin would say. However, I suspect that Bazin would not have totally dug The Mummy as a film. It’s far too invested in expressionism and illusion, in clever tricks of make-up and fantasy, and in the Méliès school of cinema to win his unequivocal good graces. Yet, The Mummy does deal adroitly with the idea of cinema as the mummy, the preserved shell of time and space.

That long, long scene at the beginning makes you really feel time, just as the film’s many roving tracking shots force you to scan and explore the film’s diegetic space as a fully three-dimensional world. Cliff Alberti pointed out that Imhotep walking out of the hut takes place off-screen. So do several of the most crucial horror moments of the film (the murder of the museum guard, Helen’s dog being killed). These spatial ellipses enhance the all-encompassing atmosphere of Freund’s film. It is a total space, a place, a world unto itself, not just a set with a camera plunked down in it.

There are hints of what would come to be known as the Bazanian realism, respecting the integrity of space and time. In fact, Freund later worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland on Mad Love. According to Scott McGee at TCM, Pauline Kael attested that this later film was key in helping Toland develop the techniques he’d employ in Citizen Kane, which Bazin singled out for the intelligent ambiguity of its deep-focus shots. We’re really not all that far away.

Nevertheless, how The Mummy blends this kind of grounding in space and time with the occasional magical, unreal manipulation of these elements intrigues me most. Freund’s camera becomes almost like Imhotep, wiggling around in reality one moment, and, in the next instant, jumping to the past or into some mystical, symbolic abstraction of time or space, like the rolling city panorama or the sudden emptiness of the archeologist’s hut.

The classic example of this shift from real space to a fantasy space occurs during the famous gazing pool scene.

A stunning tracking shot swirls above the characters…

…and then plunges right into the pool, as a seamless dissolve transports us to the past.

And, from here, the flashback takes on the look and feel of both silent cinema and Egyptian scroll paintings (Hmm. Emulating the aesthetics of another era to intensify the philosophical implications of the work? Ingmar Bergman, your turn! Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back!)

People have remarked that this scene symbolizes the unconscious. That’s a slight stretch for me, but the sequence does subtly reveal that the past is never fully past. The tracking shot provides an ostensibly “continuous” movement into the past. Again, the camera is the bridge over time, slipping in and out between registers of reality.

Cinema is a mummy of change, reality embalmed, but it’s a mummy that can also call up quite a few incantations, too. Spells only become cheap tricks when they lose their impact and I think that this camera “trick” is still spellbinding. It makes me wonder what parts of the past are still haunting me—and all of us, on some level.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The Mummy is a pretty kinky movie when you ponder it. The most warped moment, however, arrives not when the undead creature is present, but rather when Frank Whemple is flirting with the barely conscious Helen.

By talking to her about dead people. Smooth!

He goes on and on about how he dug up the Princess and handled all of her stuff and “her toilette things,” and how, upon unwrapping the lady mummy, he “sort of fell in love with her.”

The Princess’s Toilette Things.

Awfully fetishistic stuff, really.

Apparently, even affable, shaving-cream-ad-good-looking 1930s fellows like David Manners’s Frank harbor a secret necrophiliac bent! And we were condemning Imphotep as strange?

“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” Helen wryly asks. This single line of dialogue makes us truly appreciate Helen as a person for the first time. The sassy comeback renders her modern and amusing—not just some brooding reincarnated chick who’s susceptible to hypnosis. I also consider it a very important line in terms of the movie’s meaning.

Déjà vu?

It’s a deceptively deep question. How and where do we look for love? And why do we fall in love with somebody? Well, a lot of psychoanalysts have suggested that it has very little to do with the person we love and a lot more to do with our own issues. To grossly under-sell the theories of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, we love a certain “something” in that other person that makes us feel complete, since we humans are constantly split-up and divided inside. We’re not so much interested in that other person as we are in the part of ourself that we feel is embedded in that other person.

Frank even admits that one of the reasons he loves Helen is because she reminds him of the dead Princess. His “pure” desire for Helen therefore translates into a need for a victory over death, again. Yes, I’m psychologizing, but he has a crush on a corpse, for crying out loud! By having the woman who reminds him of the Princess, he can feel as though he’s conquered death and time. Wait, isn’t that what Imhotep wants, too?

Of course, Imhotep takes it a little farther. He actually wants to kill her and make her a living mummy whereas Frank seems content with the fantasy. So, in at least two forms, one extreme, the other acceptable, love is inscribed in the mummy complex.

“Love and crime and death” blend together in the all-consuming yearning for immortality. Which is kind of ironic, since all of these actors are dead, yet also undead silver screen mummies, embalmed in celluloid and now in DVD plastic, who dance for us at will.

In closing, I’d just like to make one more observation. I’ve already touched on how cinema is like a fingerprint (courtesy Peter Wollen!). So, I find it significant that the only “proof” that Imhotep came to life when his mummy went missing… is his handprint.

The transcribed hieroglyphs on the paper at left are meaningless if you can’t read them, but the image, connected to the mummy’s physical being, instantly tells a tale.

This handprint motif returns when when Imhotep grabs Helen’s arm towards the end of the film.

Now, that’s creepy because clearly it’s hinting at what she’ll become: a hideously embalmed monster. The dusty, macabre handprint tells us that there is no such thing as eternal life, except if you’re willing to give up some of what we consider to be essential to “life.”

Another aspect of what makes the handprints so eerie consists in their uncanny contradiction: a dead thing isn’t supposed to be able to grab, to touch, or to leave its mark on the living… but this one can. Even the narrator of the original trailer for the film got caught up in this contradiction. “The mummy: is it alive or dead? Human or inhuman?”

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say it again: the film of The Mummy is itself a mummy. It’s the fingerprint of reality, keeping the players in a place between life and death. If Imhotep’s pool is a metaphor for the unconscious, it’s also a meta-phor for cinema. Freund troubles the gazing pool and sets before us strange dreams that are both real and unreal, both forever past and forever present. Both dead and alive.

As Bazin pointed out, every living thing put before the camera has become a mummy of change, a strip of time preserved forever intact. Now, that sounds pretentious when I write it, but it sure looks great when Freund shows it.

Sources and Resources:

Bazin, André. “Ontologie de l’Image Photographique.”  Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Vol. 1. Ontologie et langage. Paris: Cerf, 1958.

McGee, Scott. “Pop Culture 101: Citizen Kane.” Read the article at TCM.

Mulvey, Laura. “Death 24x a Second.” Reaktion Books, 2006.

Wollen, Peter. “The Semiotics of the Cinema.” Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

I did my thesis on Jacques Lacan, so what I say in this post is sort of a condensation of what I got from reading a lot of his essays, too many to cite in a blog, I think. However, if you’d like me to share some Lacan resources and point to a few essays, go ahead and contact me.

I’d also like to recommend Richard Freeman’s “The Mummy in Context,” an excellent review of the literary, cultural, and historical background of Universal’s The Mummy. This is chock full of great insights for anyone who loves this movie or movies in general!

I likewise definitely encourage you to read the Immortal Ephemera blog post on The Mummy, too, which is both personal and insightful and makes some very neat observations about the film. Eye-opening.