The 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.