The Unknown (1927, Tod Browning)


Be honest here. Has it been too long since you spent time movie-wise on a pleasant romp about a serial strangler with two thumbs who’s joined a circus posing as a man with no arms, who latches onto a fragile (implied) rape victim terrified of men’s hands and who then kills her father when he catches them about to get kissy and then when he realizes his potential new squeeze will have to see him naked on his wedding night he goes to the doctor and has both his arms amputated for real? Too long since you saw a movie in which two horses practically rip another man’s limbs off?

You needn’t answer, because I know what you’ll say, and I have the cure: this outrageous picture from the heyday of silent horror that’s so much scarier, weirder and more clever than anything playing around the corner from you at the neighborhood m-plex. I mean, don’t let me stop you from seeing Paranormal Activity 14 or whatever, but trust me, you’re cheating yourself. I wanted to see this film for nearly a decade after seeing clips from it in a doco about director Tod Browning, and it more than lives up to its reputation for sick but wonderful irreverence.

Lon Chaney, who plays why should I even bother telling you which character cause you already know, is a magician, wringing unexpected notes of real and complex emotion out of what might seem like a one-dimensional boogeyman role — Browning’s camera lingers on his exacting, methodical performance almost voyeuristically. And an extremely, ridiculously young Joan Crawford is nearly as dazzling as the subject of Chaney’s lecherous desires.

And I haven’t even addressed how bleakly funny the thing is, despite the unbearable tension it packs into 48 (!) delirious minutes — that scene when Crawford announces her engagement to an athletic two-armed stud to a baffled Chaney is absolutely hilarious, and brilliantly staged. But while its primary cultural benefit is its revelation of the full range of Chaney’s talents, The Unknown also captures the great Browning in peak form well before his career-defining success with Dracula at Universal, and irreversible failure with Freaks in 1932.

So: bless you for your horribly grim and sick perversions, Mr. Browning, utterly free of the pretensions to class employed by the more polished work of James Whale and truly, completely lurid and rife with thinly veiled madness; for all its success at the time, this is nearly as disturbing as Freaks. The fact that MGM let Browning get away with stuff like this belies that studio’s reputation, to put it very mildly.

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