Directed by Tod Browning
The United States of America
“At night, when we sleep, in our dreams we are liberated. Our selves, our story selves, are liberated. Our ids are loosed upon our little dreamscapes and -- if we're lucky -- we get to grab the person we lust after; we get to hit the person we hate; we get to wail and scream and moan all we want without anyone scolding us. And, also, we're given access: little repressed fears and anxieties grow into monstrous terrors in our dreams and our true selves become so uninhibited.” – Guy Maddin
Silent films are like dark hallucinations or suffocating dreams. Those who have the patience to sit down and watch a film without any dialogue are familiar with the power that they can cast over an audience. Much as how the lack of sight can sharpen a musician’s ear, the lack of sound can fortify a filmgoer’s eye. In today’s age where a simple thirty minute television show can be a complete assault on the senses, silent films seem like foreign or ancient oddities. They are trapped in the uncanny valley of moving images. Maybe that is why silent horror films are so powerful. True, nobody would claim that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Faust (1926) can scare an audience as much as films like The Exorcist (1973) or The Shining (1980). But that is because they don’t have to. The sight of Cesare mindlessly stalking around a world of twisted alleyways and distorted buildings does not so much inspire fear, but discomfort. Seeing a silent horror film is a test on the nerves because we have been trained to see films with sound. To us, silent films are unnatural. And if they take us into a realm of disquiet, of evil, of fear, then they become some of the most effective horror films ever made.
One such example is 1927’s The Unknown, a daring collaboration between two of the silent eras most important figures in horror: Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr. Without both of them, such a disturbing film could not have been made. Browning, who directed other horror classics such as Dracula (1931) would delve the film into two of the things that humans fear most: their own bodies and love. Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the electrifying actor who portrayed such roles as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), would be there to provide the film’s conflicted emotional center as the main character, a carnival knife thrower named Alonzo the Armless. Together they would create a film that told of unspeakable desire, unrequited passion, and limitless resolve. Truly, this collaboration is one of the greatest forgotten silent film classics ever made.
Alonzo is just another circus freak who has learned to use his feet in the place of his missing arms. He performs a knife-throwing act where he is able to throw an outline of sharp metal around Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner. Played by a young Joan Crawford, she is the epitome of innocence. Alonzo expectedly falls hopelessly in love with her. He only has one source of competition: the circus strongman. But Nanon has an unusual phobia of being touched by men. “Hands! Men’s Hands! How I hate them,” she cries out in one scene. It is Alonzo’s inability to touch her that makes care for him. His own state of castration has allowed him to fulfill his wildest fantasy.
This behavior may seem odd, at least until you pay attention to her father’s behavior. Even though the movie is too old to be able to come out and say it, the audience almost immediately suspects him of sexually abusing her. Why else would she be so terrified of the touch of a man? And why does he seem so jealous of her? After all, he taught her to hate other men. Not to mention that he attacks Alonzo when he discovers his love for her. Unfortunately for him, Alonzo is not as helpless as he seems. He swiftly kills him. Even worse for Alonzo, Nanon sees her father’s murder through a window. She even sees that the killer has a double thumb on his right hand…
Oh yes, perhaps I should have mentioned that Alonzo is not really armless. He is only pretending to be armless to escape from the police. He committed a terrible crime before he joined the circus. Witnesses can identify him by his mutated right hand. So, he keeps them bound to his sides. But on this night, he uses his arms again to commit another crime. The very fate that Alonzo wanted to escape from has become a reality.
Thankfully, Nanon didn’t see his face. In order to win her love, and escape from being identified for the murder, he blackmails a doctor into surgically removing his real arms, turning him into the very monster that he impersonated for so long. It’s too bad that when he returns Nanon has overcome her fear and has fallen in love with the strongman.
The scene where Alonzo discovers this is one of the most powerful performances that I have seen in a silent film. Burt Lancaster said that it was, “one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do.” He alternates between laughing and crying, screaming and sobbing. For a man who made his mark in Hollywood by being a human chameleon, warping his own image with groundbreaking (and physically painful) makeup, this one scene could very well be the greatest of his career. It shows Chaney’s raw talent. It isn’t aided by any makeup. It isn’t aided by any costume. It is just a man using his God-given abilities to create one of the most painful moments in cinema history.
And it is powerful because it plays into two of our greatest fears: of being unwantable and unlovable. Few directors have realized what Browning did back in the silent era: people are afraid of their own bodies. That’s why people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities and deformities. Browning took advantage of this fear in his 1932 cult classic Freaks where he filled his cast with real circus freaks who had genuine deformities. So when Chaney comes out on screen without any arms and using his feet like hands, we feel uncomfortable. The realization that now Alonzo will be permanently disfigured adds to the tragic side of the story, but it also feeds into the other great fear: love. Why did Alonzo chop off his arms? Why was he willing to disfigure himself? Because he thought that he would gain Nanon’s love. The love of the only woman who could care for him. The love of the only woman who could ever love his deformity. Now that Nanon is gone, what else can he do without arms? Who else could possibly love him? It is a painful devastation. It is a realization that he will forever be unlovable, and that it is his fault.
While the film is old, the ideas and the fears that it invokes are current and ever present. The idea that you could destroy yourself for a lover who could never love you back is one of the most terrifying things that anyone could ever imagine. The fact that it is so perfectly expressed in so old a film is a testament to its power and to the skill of the filmmakers and actors. It is a short film, but it is one that will stay with you forever. For while we may not live the same life as Alonzo, we all fear the same end. We all fear being ugly and alone.