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The Unknown

The Unknown

1927, M-G-M. Directed by Tod Browning. With Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry


Disguise, a very cool topic, is the subject of this Lon Chaney vehicle. Chaney was famous for playing deformed characters and for enduring all sorts of physical torments in order to do so. He appeared legless, hunchbacked, paralyzed, spastic, etc. The sheer spectacle of his self-transformation (and his astonishing athleticism) is as interesting as the bizarre tales in which he appears. While Chaney is quite moving in many of his grotesque roles, the audience has at least half its attention on how he achieves his effects and how he bears the pain.

The Unknown, a fairly late film (Chaney died in 1930), tackles head-on this issue of the disguise overshadowing the character. Chaney plays Alonzo, the "armless wonder" in a Spanish carnival. Alonzo uses his feet to shoot guns and throw knives at his partner, the lovely Nanon, who gets along great with Alonzo because, for reasons that are never made explicit, she can't stand the touch of a man's hands. Chaney makes a semi-convincing armless man, draped in a cape, a wide sash around his waist. You marvel at his strength and flexibility (he smokes by holding cigarettes between his toes*). And you look closely to see whether he's got his arms strapped in front or in back.

SPOILER FOLLOWS. . .PLOT TWISTS REVEALED

Don't worry. The question has been anticipated and will soon be answered. After the show, Alonzo's valet starts to undress him. You wait for the cutaway. It doesn't come. The camera stays on Alonzo as his vest, sash, and shirt come off, revealing a corset, a series of straps, and, eventually, two muscular arms.

It's not just Chaney pretending to have no arms—it's Alonzo! In fact, Alonzo is a master thief who has found a rather elaborate way to avoid being fingerprinted. And to win the heart of the caress-averse Nanon.

This is absurd, but it doesn't matter. The real subject here is the disguise itself. When the film acknowledges that the armlessness is a trick, and shows us in detail how it is accomplished, it is taking us behind the scenes of The Unknown, Lon Chaney's career, and film illusion in general. The movie contains within itself the question we ask from outside of it: Can an able-bodied man convince spectators that he is an armless cripple? What's involved when people appear to be what they are not? When is this pretense art, and when is it diabolical criminality?

After its flirtation with deconstruction, The Unknown tries to regain its melodramatic momentum. Alonzo becomes truly armless—he has his arms amputated when he realizes that things could get awkward on his and Nanon's wedding night—but it's only a plot point. Physically (the level at which Chaney movies work), he's exactly the same. Chaney stalks around in the same cape and loose blouse; the movie contents itself with having Nanon remark that he "feels thinner." It's like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. We're way outside the illusion by this time, and short of showing us a naked armless torso, The Unknown has no hope of re-convincing us of its premise.

We suspend disbelief constantly when we watch movies. Every once in a while, a movie makes us aware of what we're doing, by making the figurative literal. The Unknown shocks us with its subversive revelation that "Alonzo" is not a cinematic illusion (in which we collaborate), but exactly what our literal mind knows him to be—a man with arms pretending to be a man without arms.

None of this is to denigrate The Unknown in any way. A movie that exposes the mechanisms of art and illusion seems to me at least as interesting as one that exposes the lurid goings-on at a wacko Spanish carnival.

(6/16/1997)

* I read subsequently that Chaney had a stunt double for this scene, a man who'd been born without arms and developed his skills over many years Apparently he spent his later years touring in carnivals as "Lon Chaney's Feet.".

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein