Film / The Unknown

The Unknown is a 1927 American silent horror film directed by Tod Browning and featuring Lon Chaney as carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless and a young Joan Crawford as the scantily clad carnival girl he hopes to marry.

Chaney plays a carnival performer known as the "Armless Wonder," who performs near-miraculous stunts with his bare feet. In fact, he is in possession of both his arms, but keeps them strapped to his side to maintain the illusion of being limbless. Alonzo's beautiful assistant Nanon (Crawford) has a pathological fear of being touched by any man. This leads Alonzo to believe that he is attractive to Nanon so long as his keeps his arms hidden. Halfway through the film, Alonzo murders the circus manager—a crime witnessed by Nanon, who was only able to glimpse Alonzo's distinctively mutated thumb. To cover up his crime, and to make himself the perfect mate for Nanon, Alonzo blackmails a doctor into amputating his arms. Upon returning to the carnival, the now-genuinely armless Alonzo learns to his horror that Nanon has overcome her aberration of being touched, thanks to handsome circus strong man Malabar (Norman Kerry). Enraged, Alonzo plots to kill Malabar in a horrible fashion...but guess who ends up seriously dead?

The Unknown contains examples of:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Alonzo blackmails a surgeon into amputating both his arms.
  • Becoming the Mask: Alonzo really becomes armless. He decides to go with it when Cojo laughingly remarks that he forgot he has hands when he lights a cigarette with his feet.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Averted. The ending text doesn't glorify Alonzo's sacrifice to save Nanon since his whole motivations were unheroic in the first place.
  • Dumb Muscle: Malabar could be seen as this.
  • Evil Cripple: Alonzo is a murderer with no arms.
  • Freak Out!: Alonzo experiences one when he discovers that Nanon is married, and things go downhill very rapidly from there.
  • Friend Zone: Alonzo winds up in Nanon's, and doesn't care for it one little bit.
  • Handy Feet: Alonzo, who uses his feet to light cigarettes, throw knives, etc.
  • Hates Being Touched: Nanon has a phobia about being touched by men's hands. This fuels Alonzo's insane belief that he could be the perfect man for her.
  • The Igor: Cojo, somehow.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: Not done with hands.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Nanon is this in Alonzo's act. In the act and out, she spends a good bit of the movie in her stage costume of a tank top and hot pants.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Alonzo pretends to be armless.
  • Red Right Hand: Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand.
  • Secret Keeper: Cojo the midget is the only one who knows Alonzo's secret and helps him keep it.
  • Shoot the Builder: In the original script (and deleted scenes), Alonzo murders the doctor who amputated his arms so he could never reveal Alonzo's secret.
  • Slasher Smile: Alonzo's rictus grin when he finds out that Nanon and Malabar got married is something to behold.
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Alonzo learns about Nanon and Malabar getting together, you can see in his eyes how torn apart he is.
  • Villain Protagonist: Alonzo is a thief and murderer.
  • What a Drag: Malabar and Nanon have an act, where the strongman's arms are seemingly pulled in opposite directions by two horses (who are actually on hidden treadmills). Alonzo attempts to sabotage this act so Malabar is really ripped apart by the horses.