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Film / The Unknown

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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.
  • Blackmail: Alonzo blackmails a surgeon into amputating his arms.
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: Alonzo the Armless (who throws knives with his feet) is compelled by his condition (faked at first, but later genuine when he has his arms amputated) to sometimes hold his knives in his teeth.
  • Dead Man Writing: When Alonzo blackmails the doctor into amputating his arms, he warns the doctor that he has left behind a letter that will expose the doctor's crimes should he happen to die on the operating table.
  • 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.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Several female audience members are seen visibly ogling Malabar's muscular physique.
  • Evil Cripple: Alonzo is a murderer with no arms.
  • Falling into His Arms: Nanon trips and falls down a flight of stairs only to be caught by Malabar, in a case of Literally Falling in Love.
  • 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.
  • Handicapped Badass: After having his arms amputated, Alonzo is still a lethal knife-thrower; able to throw with pinpoint accuracy with his feet.
  • 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 Outline: Alonzo creates one around Nanon during the Knife-Throwing Act at the opening of the film.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: Not done with hands.
  • Laughing Mad: After Alonzo finds out about Nanon and Malabar's marriage. Made worse by Nanon's blithe line: "Alonzo is laughing at the way everything happened."
  • Literally Falling in Love: Nanon trips on a step and falls down the stairs to literally land in Malabar's arms as he catches her. This is the moment when Nanon discovers that she no longer Hates Being Touched.
  • Lovely Assistant: Nanon is Alonzo's lovely assistant in his Knife-Throwing Act. As part of the act, he uses his knives to strip away the veils that make up her costume.
  • 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.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never revealed what exactly the doctor's crimes were or how Alonzo is connected.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Alonzo pretends to be armless.
  • Red Right Hand: Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand.
  • Repulsive Ringmaster: Zanzi runs his circus with an iron hand, and has no issue with savagely beating Alonzo (who he believes to be armless). Malabar has to intervene to save Alonzo's life.
  • Secret-Keeper: Cojo 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.
  • The Strongman: Alonzo's Lovely Assistant Nanon falls in love with the circus' handsome strongman Malabar, which sends Alonzo into a Villainous Breakdown.
  • 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.