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.