Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Unknown

To describe Richmond tonight, I could easily begin, Twas a dark and stormy night....But you know, I'm not complaining. All the better for me to veg out in front of the TV, wine in hand (I bought a box at Target!) and catch up on my stacks upon stacks of horror movies begging for a night like this to watch them. Tonight's feature presentation is Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN, starring the wonderful, the magical, Lon Chaney. Not that whiny wolf man guy, but his daddy ;P

Wow, what a treat! In fact, I watched it twice. This is why I do what I do, people. What is that, Jenn? Drink wine and blather on about how cute the cats are? No (*in an exasperated tone*), ya'll, this is one of those movies that reinforces my love of all things horror-ly cinematic. It's wild and crazy and melancholic and brilliantly excecuted and has lots of overt Freudian subtext. So here we go!

Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is a guy masquerading as a sideshow attraction to avoid detection from police for a series of robberies he committed. He's taken to binding his arms and hands inside a corset and has perfected the art of smoking, drinking tea, playing guitar, and throwing knives with his feet to complete the ruse. He is in love with Nanon (a beautiful young Joan Crawford), the sideshow owner's daughter and his partner in the knife throwing show. Nanon suffers from an interesting sexual phobia in that she cannot stand the feeling of a man's hands or arms. Irony alert!

Seems Alonzo must keep his love for Nanon at a distance less she discover his abhorrent appendages and there's that nasty business about him being exposed not just as a fraudulent freak, but as a 'armed' (get it?) robber as well. However, it gets even thicker, in that Alonzo, when unbound, has a siamese thumb on his right hand, which was the only part of him Nanon glimpsed when Alonzo finally kills her father after a beatdown and his cruelty towards Nanon. Yeah, things take a turn for the convoluted, but it's not without merit. And it's wildly entertaining, as well.

So deep and pained is his love for Nanon, Alonzo bribes a doctor to remove his arms for reals, only to return to find her in the arms, literally, of the circus strongman, Malabar. Seems she's gotten over her proclivity and has been residing in the arms of Malabar for quite some time now, while here Alonzo was off getting amputated so they could be together and all. Women! A fickle sort, aren't they?

So, a menacing sort to be sure (remember he's a killer and a bank robber, but somehow you still feel sorry for him), Alonzo decides to emasculate (and by this, I mean, rip off Malabar's arms - we'll get to the sex stuff in a second - let me just get through the plot!), the strong man and almost succeeds when he tries to rig a complicated horse on a treadmill circus act. (You have to see it! It's over the top and weird and wonderful and not something I thought existed in the early 20th century circus performances. Or now, for that matter. Or ever, really.) Alonzo almost succeeds, but in a fit of remorse, finds himself under the hooves of a crazed horse instead.

In Sigmund Freud's essay 'The Uncanny' he discusses the relationship between castration complex and macabre fantasy stories. If we remember our literary criticism class in grad school, we'll remember that Freud's concept of the doppleganger (the root of all monster images) is primarily a defense mechanism. Your unconscious mind sees some sort of danger to your body (well, I'm trying to be coy), namely the genitals and creates what Freud thinks is a imagination stand-in for the threatened part. In that Alonzo has a siamese thumb and poses as a 'freak' without arms is a direct indication that Browning was familiar with Freud's work in this area. Look at Browning's FREAKS, for example. Or THE UNHOLY THREE. All these works deal with some sort of castration complex, possibly on the part of Browning. Extra limbs, arms cut off, dismemberment - they all point to a castration complex.

I know Browning was a terrible alcoholic and claimed to have gotten kicked by a horse once growing up. But I don't know what his 'trigger' is for all these castration images in his movies. Sounds like the work of someone that is not as lazy as me. But I'm thankful for them, because I love watching stuff that has overt sexy times subtext. It makes me feel naughty ;P

But anyway, let's talk about Nanon in Freudian terms. Where does her peculiar sexual phobia come from? Is she suffering from penis envy? Some sort of lack? How does she suddenly get over her problem? Just because Malabar is insistent, it would seem. But by then, the whole melodrama is so steeped in irony, you expect her to give into Malabar's advances. I must say, I like her much better when she's freaking out about men's hands being all over her to the point of hysteria and sexing it up in front of live audience in the knife throwing act, than when she settles down with the mustachioed strong man and gets in on his weird horse-treadmill act. Although she does get to throw a bull-whip around while wearing a gold lame bikini top during said act, which is quite nice.

Self-fragmentation is evident here, as well as issues concerning sex, identity, personal psychologies, and collectively unconscious fears. It's a silent film from over eighty years ago that still manages to evoke suspense, drama, pathos, irony, and all the aforementioned sexy stuff. I find myself on the edge of my seat watching Alonzo struggle with whether or not he wants to actually go through with killing Malabar and I feel truly sorry for him when he cries when he sees Nanon for the first time after he has his arms removed. Chaney, Browning, and cast are capable of evoking very base emotions and they evoke them well. And although some of it does seem for fit for the stage than the cinema and the performances are melodramatic, it's still one hell of a ride.

And I didn't even touch on Alonzo's relationship with Cojo, his resident dwarf and caretaker. Maybe in the comments section. It's safe to say there's underlying anxiety involving sex abounding in this film and leave it at that because I am going to need more wine.

I recommend this, especially if you haven't watched much Chaney, Sr. stuff before. The man can ACT! I'm talking big time wonderful ACTING. And he's not even really wearing makeup! Although I did hear he had a foot double for when he had to smoke and drink and so forth with his toesies. Still, the effect is realistic, creepy, but at the same time almost charming. Please watch this movie. Watch it twice. It helps if you dig the sideshow carnival backdrop, which I undoubtedly do.


  1. Jenn, this movie sounds great. I love movies that are full of irony. But a castration complex? Really? I didn't go to grad school, so (get) bare with me... are you suggesting that Alonzo pretended to be armless because he was ashamed of his siamese thumb? Or are you just suggesting that Browning used aspects of the castration complex and incorporated them into his stories? I dunno, maybe I misinterpreted what you were trying to get at.

    As far as Nanon, it's pretty obvious that she has issues and I'm glad you brought that up, but maybe Browning was sort of using her character to mock women because maybe HE had some issues with women (or a particular woman). Nanon could have been a commentary on that. I mean, she leads Alonzo on and makes him believe one thing, and then she turns around and does something completely different, completely shitting on his loyalty to her in the process. Hmmm....

  2. I love this movie, Jenn, and love your write-up so much I'm willing to forgive the continued, totally undeserved swipes at my man Creighton. ;)

    I was totally blown away the first time I watched this movie. It's really hard for modern viewers to get into the somewhat different mindset you need to watch silent movies a lot of times, but this one just pulled me right in with all its weirdness, convoluted plotting, and of course the amazing performance by Chaney. I mean, when you think about it, Alonso is really a completely horrible person, a liar and a cheat and a murderer and a thief, and pretty much remorseless about all that. The only redemptive quality is his hopeless, star-crossed love for Nanon, but somehow Chaney makes that enough. I mean, we can all identify with feeling like a freak in front of someone we're in love with who only sees us as a friend, and only pays attention to us when we're tossing knives at her. Right? :)

    The scene you mention where Chaney comes back from his operation and discovers he's done it all for nothing is really the scene everyone should watch to see what all the fuss is about over Chaney's acting ability. I mean, he's made a gesture of love so extreme, so irreversible, it's really more than almost anyone would do for their loved one, no matter how steeped in romance--and of course she has no idea or appreciation of it. But the scene! Chaney in medium shot, starting out laughing at the black absurdity of it, laughing and laughing and laughing...the camera stays on him as you watch the laughter go maniacal, and then dissolve into hopeless, heartbroken tears at what he's lost, both personally and romantically...I swear to god, you can almost HEAR him. The acting's that good. Amazing stuff.

    And I too was on the edge of my seat with that wild ending!

    Brilliant movie, and I was so glad TCM brought it out on DVD. Wish they could do the same with the rest of Chaney's surviving flicks. I know I'd buy them.

    Also: a very young Joan Crawford in this, who is absolutely DISTRACTINGLY HAWT. Beat me with your wire hangers, baby! ;)

  3. Jenn, you're a dish for watching this film twice and singing its praises with such literary finesse. THE UNKNOWN is one of my favorite films of all time, and I use to put on triple Browning bills (at home) that included UNHOLY THREE, UNKNOWN, and FREAKS.

    Browning had an amazing about to unearth the deep tragedy of Outsider lives, and deep humanity.

    I would like to know what it means when a director fella features castration (literal and symbolic) in a large percentage of his work because I featured it twice myself in my film DEFENCELESS. Sheesh!

    Lots of love here for your cinematic excursions.

  4. @Aaron. I'm suggesting the latter. I think Browning had a castration thing. It's quite overt. He was likely familiar with Freud's work, too, which I also find fascinating, give the time period when Browning and Chaney were working. You think jazz-age and good times and then you've got these films coming out dealing with castration anxiety and relentless sexual frustration. But hey, sex sells, no matter what the context, huh?

    @Scott. Oh man, you're right, you can actually HEAR Chaney, especially when he finds out that Nanon is going to marry Malabar. His expressions are priceless and beautiful, despite the fact that he's a despicable individual. But you root for him anyway. I want to cry out - Don't get amputated! She doesn't love you like you love her! I want to save him from this, even though he's a murderer and a thief! It's a tour de force, and I mean that sincerely.

    Joan Crawford is wonderful (and sexy) in this as well and I believe she was quoted saying that working with Chaney was both 'traumatic and delightful'. I love that!

    @Phantom. Thank you, my dear, and that sounds like a marvelous triple bill. Too bad most of Chaney's oeuvre is lost - I would love to see more! Is THE PENALTY lost? I would love to get a glimpse of that! Kind of the lower torso version of THE UNKNOWN.

    And I don't know about the castration complex personally, not having anything to castrate, so you tell me :P

  5. @Aaron (and Jenn)--I don't think Browning would necessarily have to have been consciously incorporating Freud into his pictures--really, so much of his carnival-centered weirdnesses (which come from his life experience, of course--I know thanks to the excellent book about him by David J. Skal) seem to come straight from the barely-sublimated subconscious, it seems more likely to me he just gravitated to these types of images because of his own peculiar bent, and not necessarily because he wanted to incorporate Freud into his movies, etc.

    And I'm not a psychologist, but call it castration anxiety or what have you, it does seem a potent body-horror thing to think of losing one's arms, one's hands, one's ways of interacting with the world. It could speak to the feared or actual powerlessness of the outsider in the face of normal society, even independent of cock-related theories. ;)

    As to the rest of Chaney's body of work, I've got a $1 dvd of "Shadows" at home I've yet to watch, in which he plays an evil Chinaman who converts to Christianity, or something. I'm sure it's racist and preachy, but am betting Chaney makes it worth watching anyway.

  6. Hi Jenn -- first off, thank you for your kind words regarding my review of Frankenstein (1931). My review of Bride of Frankenstein will be up within the next two hours. I do intend to look at the tabula rasa/nature vs nurture idea a bit more, along with addressing some other elements that come up.

    I've been meaning to watch this film for some time now, it's just been a matter of getting my grubby oversized paws on a copy. Your analysis is an absolute joy to read, and the sort of thing I'm trying more and more for in my own reviews. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. I have never seen this film...but lo! I have a boxed set of three Chaney films still wrapped in plastic and one of them is... The Unknown. It's a cold miserable day today in the north of Scotland so maybe I will watch it today.

    The castration thing is very interesting, it seems to me he castrates himeslf by having his arms removed. Also brings up memories of Boxing Helena...