Trying to watch 1927’s The Unknown has been something of an adventure. Having been promised it through Amazon Prime, I found myself watching 1946’s The Unknown – which it turns out is not a remake or in any way remotely related but enjoyable nonetheless). After a delightful chat with customer services explaining they are using the 1927 poster on the 1946 film, I was given my £2.49 back and tried to find it elsewhere.
That wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, it doesn’t seem to be on any streaming platform or blu ray. I did find it embedded on a website, but then couldn’t work out how to cast it to my tv so had to watch it on my phone.
The film stars Lon Chaney (who we’ve seen before in excellent The Phantom of the Opera) in another of his iconic roles. This time playing a man who pretends to have no arms to perform as a circus act and hide from the police, throwing knives with his feet to earn a living.
Chaney’s character Alonzo falls in love with the ringmaster’s daughter, who has a pathological fear of being touched by men and so finds comfort in him. While Alonzo goes to extreme lengths to win her over, she begins to fall for the circus strongman.
It’s a psychological horror that still manages to hit you in the gut, almost 100 years on and even on a tiny iPhone screen. Chaney, under the masterful direction of Tod Browning, creates another iconic character filled with rage, jealousy but also tenderness. He is known as the man of 1,000 faces but it’s the thousand dimensions of the character that shine through here.
In the film’s most infamous and shocking moment, which I won’t spoil here, it’s testament to the skill of Chaney that we understand the drastic actions Alonzo takes for love. Such an extreme reaction could easily seem unrealistic but Chaney builds such a strength of character in Alonzo that we almost egg him on, whilst knowing the tragedy he’s doomed to learn.
This audience manipulation was a strength of Browning’s which he’d return to in 1932’s Freaks, which is also set amongst the sideshow acts of a circus. We’re driven to sympathise with even the worst characters and delight in their pain. It’s become an old cliché now that man is the true monster but back in the 1920s and 30s Browning was already asking the question of his captive viewers. Who’s worse, the people in his films or us enjoying their pain?
I’d recommend The Unknown to anyone interested in old movies, especially of the silent era. It’s short and punchy, filmed in a largely conventional way with a few title cards and so easily accessible if you’re just getting into the genre. For horror fans, it’s a magnificent journey into the depths of madness that one man can experience with plenty of tense scenes. And, of course, there’s Lon Chaney wearing one of his more human but no less monstrous faces.