Welcome to the world of weird.
“The Unknown” marks the beginning of a series of Tod Browning movies and so introduces us to his bizarre imagination. He would later direct the bizarre-supreme “Freaks” (and the below standard “Dracula), but “The Unknown” is in my opinion the best of his entries. Apparently he absolutely loved the freaky and weird and made quite a few movies in that genre. Lon Chaney, who we saw before in “The Phantom of the Opera” was a favorite of his, no doubt because he also dabbled in the freakish. It is sad that “The Unknown” is the only entry on the list with this combination, I would have loved to see some more from them.
The story in “The Unknown” is bizarre, sort of Twilight Zone like, except there is neither occult themes nor any aliens here. No need for that with Lon Chaney and Tod Browning around. This story takes place in a Gypsy circus in Madrid, Spain and is presented as a story handed down (except that the contraptions involved in the story cannot make it that far in the past), but in any case as a scary tale, a myth of horrible fate.
Lon Chaney is the armless knife-thrower Alonzo in the circus and has an act together with the circus princess, the circus owner’s daughter Nanon. He is secretly in love with her, but so is also the strong-man Malabar. Nanon has a phobia against hands, which always clash with Malabars very physical courtship. Alonzo is rather smug about this. Without arms he stands quite a good chance with her.
Except things are not what they seem. Alonzo is not the hero of this story. He is a crook who hides out in the circus as the armless man, while at night he unwinds his arms and raids the places the circus passes through. It is a perfect scam since nobody suspects an armless man. His confident in crime is a dwarf who helps him with all sorts of practical stuff including talking some sense into him. Somehow I get to think of “Bad Santa”. The scam is kind of similar and so is the constellation and the eventual downfall of Alonzo.
Being the kind of guy Alonzo is his own courtship of Nanon is a dishonest affair and full of hidden manipulations and schemes. He coerces Malabar to use his physics on Nanon knowing that that would make her reject Malabar and he does not tell Nanon outright that he loves her. Yet he is smitten by her and willing to compromise his scam to get her.
Their lives change when the circus owner finds out about Alonzo’s arms and Alonzo kills him for it. Yeah, he is a really nice guy. Nanon sees it happening, but can only see that it is a guy with two thumbs (hurrah for Tod Browning!). The circus disperses and Alonzo, Cojo the dwarf, Nanon and Malabar stay back.
Alonzo now makes the fateful decision to rid himself of his arms. He cannot reveal his arms to Nanon for she will know it was he who killed her father and she is all he can think of. So he arranges to get his arms detached and when he returns some time later to his good friends Nanon and Malabar he finds them together. He gave up his arms for naught! This of course destroys him in a spectacular fashion. Lon Chaney was known for his very eloquent face and these scenes where he feels the impact of defeat are just fantastic.
It is quite an achievement that Tod Browning manages to make us root for a guy who is obviously a very bad card, so much that despite his monstrosity we still feel his loss. Looking at it more objectively he of course gets what he deserves, but that is not the way it feels when we see it. I think it is because Tod Browning genuinely loves his oddities and misfits. There are redeeming traits to Alonzo, although it is more a feeling than something I can put my finger on, but you know, he does make a big sacrifice to get the girl.
Objectively Malabar is the good guy here. He is plain and honest and genuinely good to people around him, but he also comes about as flat and dull and certainly without the depth of Alonzo. I had to keep reminding me that I ought to root for Malabar, but it kept slipping.
I frankly do not know what the other Browning/Chaney movies are like, but by picking this one I do not think the list did them a disfavor.