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Unknown, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A farewell to arms. Yeah, just what you'd think."
5 stars

SCREENED WITH LIVE ACCOMPANIMENT BY CIRKESTRA: "The Unknown" is fabulous. By that I mean not just that it is a hoot to watch, which is true, but that it's got the feel of a fairy tale (before Disney cleaned them up), unbelievable and gruesome but with a harsh morality underneath. I'm not sure you can make a movie like this any more - actually hearing this dialog spoken would probably expose it even more for how ridiculous it is - but that's no reason not to enjoy this silent melodrama.

Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is the star of the Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, although Antonio (Nick De Ruiz) isn't fond of the man. Apparently using his feet to throw knives in an act with Zanzi's beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford) is okay; shows of affection between them, however, is a major issue. Why can't she like someone like the circus's strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry)? Alas, she hates men for how they try to get their hands all over her and their arms around her. What only Alonzo's midget assistant Cojo (John George) knows is that Alonzo's arms aren't missing, but bound in a corset, and the left one terminates in a hand with a very distinctive thumbprint, which would match those left behind at a string of thefts along the circus's path.

There's more, of course - in the course of roughly an hour, there will be murder, and a storyline that comes off as an especially twisted amalgam of Cyrano and "The Gift of the Magi". Director Tod Browning and his collaborators pile the melodrama on high, barely letting one bit of strangeness settle in the audience's collective brain before topping it. There is no subtlety to be found, with Nanon yelling things like "arms! How I hate men's arms!", just in case some in the audience are a bit slow.

Silly as that sounds, it's a ton of fun, in large part because the cast knows how to walk the fine line between camp and sincerity. Lon Chaney, for instance, delivers exactly what the movie needs at any particular moment; his face and body language shift from the wistful romantic to the maniacal villain to the man in a jealous range at the drop of a hat. It's a performance that is broad in all of its components but each of these multiple faces has the appropriate reflection of the others in it. He could do freaky hand-like things with his feat, too. John George makes a wonderful foil for Chaney; after all, it doesn't matter what Cojo says so much as whether he has the proper sardonic look on his face when saying it, which he does. Norman Kerry is kind of hilarious as Malabar the Mighty, a simple man who makes up for being not too bright by being utterly sincere and sweet with Nanon. And Joan Crawford makes a fine not-quite-ingenue, adding just the right pinch of knowing bitterness toward men into her otherwise almost child-like outlook.

Silent films are seldom truly silent, although the musical score you see it with can change the experience tremendously. For this screening, The Unknown was accompanied by Cirkestra, a group of musicians who have all written and performed for various circuses. Their score is a bit bouncy, just enough to keep things fun and moving forward through the absurdity, but with just enough sinister undertones to keep the thing from being complete camp.

No matter what you've got for a soundtrack, though, this is going a fun hour. Utterly insane, but that's a large part of its appeal.

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originally posted: 03/26/10 14:59:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 28-Oct-2003



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