So it's my first official night of 20's Horror Halloween, and I decided to start strong.
Now, I'm not completely sure why this movie is called THE UNKNOWN. It should probably be called THE ARMS - or, more accurately, A FAREWELL TO ARMS (though of course then I don't know what Hemingway would've done). This thing is all about arms - specifically, who has them, who doesn't have them, who appears not to have them but in fact does have them, and who is afraid of them.
The film takes place in a gypsy circus, where Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an apparently armless knife-thrower. He's desperately, deeply in love with Joan Crawford's character, Nanon, who is acutely afraid of men's arms and hands because of the pain and abuse they've brought her. She, in turn, is being pursued romantically by Malabar, who uses his muscular arms to perform various feats of strength (so the relationship is not going so well, naturally). Oh, and then there's Alonzo's vaguely creepy, little person assistant, Cojo.
Now, we learn pretty quickly that Alonzo doesn't actually have no arms. In fact, he has two arms, three thumbs, and a very criminal past. The main reason Nanon trusts and feels safe with him, however, is because she thinks he has no arms. It's pretty much the basis of their entire relationship. So he can't tell her the truth. Oh, and she saw his double-thumb (but not his face) when he killed her father. So he really can't tell her the truth. What is a lovesick degenerate to do?
What follows, of course, is one of the all-time great examples of dramatic irony. And some seriously dark and demented decision-making, of course.
Alonzo does what he considers the reasonable thing: he abruptly leaves and blackmails a doctor into amputating both his arms. There are no word-titles telling you that's specifically what he's after, by the way - the awful realization just sort of dawns on you over time. Now, in a way this a great sacrifice for the woman he loves. In going, however, he commits one of the cardinal sins of love stories: he leaves before he tells the woman he loves her. This is something that almost never works out in movies. Leave just after declaring your love, and you can usually pull of an 'enduring long-distance love' situation. Leave without doing so, however, and it's anybody's game. In this case, the very day that Alonzo leaves, Malabar discovers Nanon mooning over some flowers that he gave her. He's confused by her mixed signals, goes to hold her, and finally realizes why she keeps recoiling. Unlike Alonzo, however, he is somewhat grounded in reality (and he's never killed any of her family members), so he decides to just spend quality time with her, keep his hands away from her, and wait for her to overcome her fear. It's actually very sweet and romantic. And it works. Alonzo returns to find himself on one half of a pretty awful Gift of the Magi. He's given up his arms only to find that Nanon no longer fears them - and that she and Malabar are ready to get married. Lon Chaney gives exactly the reaction one might expect: hysterical laugh-crying. It's actually gorgeous. Then he decides to exact his revenge in a climactic scene I shall not reveal. I will say that horses on treadmills are involved.
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This movie isn't a traditional horror story of the "fill it with zombies and set it on fire" variety. It's more of an extremely dark, tragic love story (just the way I like 'em!). There's a particularly well-functioning love triangle in play here - Alonzo loves Nanon, Malabar loves Nanon, Nanon's attracted to Malabar but repulsed by his arms, Nanon clearly cares for Alonzo but the relationship is unclear. Everybody has compelling, conflicting reasons to be together that are initially overridden by the things keeping them apart. Classic love story. Still, plenty of appropriate Halloween elements are there - the circus (territory director Tod Browning explores again in the more-famous and oft-banned FREAKS); amputations; murder; medieval punishment methods; attempted murder; wild, uncontrollable laughter. What more do you need, really?
Plus it's a great time to watch, of course. I'm a long-time and openly-acknowledged fan of Lon Chaney, and he gives one of his best and most heartfelt performances here. And of course you have to see Joan Crawford. I have to confess this was the first time I'd actually seen her on film. Famous aversion to wire hangers aside, she's entrancing and visceral and ravishing and believable in a way that's definitely ahead of her time. Norman Kerry's Malabar is unexpectedly nuanced and lovable when he could so easily have been as flat and boring as the "love-interest-by-default" usually is, even today. Even Cojo is emotional and interesting. These actors take a group of "types" and turn them into honestly engaging people. It's fascinating work.
What really sets this movie apart, though, is the foot acting. Chaney has an actually-armless body double for the film, Paul Desmuke, who I believe plays the feet. And he plays them splendidly! Alonzo smokes with his feet, gestures with his feet, throws knives, shoots off a girl's dress (for his circus act), even drums his toes together evilly. Never knew your feet could express nuance and pathos? Well, see THE UNKNOWN, and realize just how much untapped potential you've been ignoring.
So, what have I learned? First of all, scary-creepy is best when it comes with a scary-creepy story. Second, arms are...good? Bad? Overrated? More dramatically interesting than I used to think, anyway.
Type of Scary: Twisted.
Recommended for: Anyone with a foot fetish.
Not recommended for: Apotemnophobics.
I gasped, sighed, smiled, gritted my teeth, and did a lot of horrified staring with my mouth hanging open. Oh, horror/romance. Why isn't there more of you out there these days?