Monday, October 24, 2011
The Unknown - 1927
Obsession. Sadism. Phobia. Panic. We’re going to slide into Halloween this week with some monsters. With all due respect to fans of movies about zombies, vampires, and werewolves, those creatures aren’t real. (The Easter Bunny is real. So is the Tooth Fairy. And leprechauns, they’re real.)
When the ancient Celts marked the Samhain, it was as a kind of Twilight Zone portal into the Other World. How it got to be about gory movies and snack-size Snickers bars these days is a matter for someone else to tackle. I’m more interested in that portal, psychologically speaking, and the two films we cover this week are rife with human beings on the edge of madness. Being human is what causes their madness. This is what is most terrifying about it.
Today we have “The Unknown” (1927), a silent Lon Chaney masterpiece where “The Man of a Thousand Faces” uses only his own magnificent, weathered, sensitive face to show us the very picture of a man morphed into a monster by his obsession.
On Thursday, the portal to another world leads us into desert ghost town, a killer terrorizing his unlucky captives, while an atomic bomb is about to be tested just outside the tumbleweed-strewn main street in “Split Second” (1953).
Both scenarios are every bit as weird and grotesque as a “monster” movie, but what distinguishes them is that humanity (even more than the lack of it) is the focus, yet these films have the funhouse mirror effect of distorted reality. The acting, writing, and directing is superior.
“The Unknown”, directed by Tod Browning, takes us to a Gypsy circus in Spain. They are outcasts from the start, by virtue of their being Gypsies and by being circus performers. Some, however, are more outcast than others.
Lon Chaney was undoubtedly a great example for young actors in silent film. He is mesmerizing in this role, not merely what he does physically -- which as always is remarkable, but what he conveys with his facial expressions is so riveting. He is compelling, heartbreaking, and frightening.
Though part of his act is to undress her every performance by shooting her clothes off with a gun.
Norman Kerry, who plays the circus strongman, is also in love with Joan, but he lacks the gentleness and moreover, the cleverness of Chaney to get very far with her. Besides, he has these two strong hands that are always reaching for her, which creeps her out.
In a brutal scene, Joan’s circus owner father beats up Lon, because he wants his daughter to get over her phobia and stop hanging around with circus freaks. He doesn’t want Lon encouraging her friendship. Lon cannot fight back. Norman Kerry comes to his rescue. Lon’s duplicitous expression here, smiling through gritted teeth, is really something. He hates Kerry, his romantic rival, with a passion, but acts the humble, grateful, helpless victim.
Norman Kerry is one of the most handsome men in silents. My gosh, that smile.
When the others have left, Lon’s helper Mr. George undresses him. With Lon’s back to the camera, we see…
Oh, by the way, there’s spoilers coming up. Go outside and sit in the car if you don’t want to know. But don’t play with the radio. It’s right at the station I want.
Oh, lord, they’re arms.
He’s not armless. Only Lon Chaney could make something as completely normal as having arms look grotesque and sickening.
After the initial surprise, this begs the question, why does he hide his arms? It’s a bit much to go through for a circus act gimmick. But, there is more to Lon than the passive, pitiful deformed man. He is not passive, but a manipulative schemer. He is a thief, who hides in the circus that travels from town to town. The police are not searching for a man with no arms.
But Lon is not without a physical deformity. On his left hand, he has a double thumb. Taking his revenge on the mean circus owner, and to clear his way to get Joan for himself, Lon strangles her father. She sees the figure of a man with two thumbs on his left hand committing the horrid act, but she never gets to see Lon’s face.
Now the police are looking for a killer with two thumbs. More than ever, Lon needs to continue his armless act.
Norman Kerry is becoming more amorous, and Joan is clinging to Lon as a safe haven. It is Mr. George who warns Lon that he must never let Joan get close to him, for she eventually will, in the intimacy he hopes for, discover his arms, his thumbs, and who he really is.
How much of Chaney’s work in this film grasping objects, wiping his face with a handkerchief -- all done with his feet is done by his own ability to contort his body and how much is done with the help of a stunt double I’m not sure. A double was indeed used to help, but I don’t know in which scenes that occurs.
He blackmails a disreputable doctor to amputate his arms.
But, wait, there’s more.
Here’s a link to the movie, now in public domain, on YouTube (in five parts). Go watch this creepy portal into the Other World where cherished dreams are entrapped by filthy nightmares. Very human stuff.
Come back Thursday for “Split Second” and a terrific ensemble cast of brutal killers, unlucky misfits, adulterous schemers, a dame down on her luck, and a reporter looking for the story of the century all trapped in a portal to Armageddon one evil night.