Very creepy film. Anything with Lon Chaney is creepy, but The Unknown concentrates a lot of psychological terror into a short run time. I agree with those who sense that a Hitchcock flavor here; I’m also reminded of Poe’s style of terror.
Lon Chaney’s Alonzo will do anything to win Joan Crawford’s Nanon. That he ends up killing her over-bearing father (to cover his criminal tracks from the police) and tries to kill her fiancee shows how desperate and unhinged he is. The role of fate and deception, again Poe-like touches, destroy Chaney’s relationship with Nonon.
Once he gets his arms amputated–instead of keeping up his circus ruse that he’s armless–he thinks he’s the perfect mate for a woman who doesn’t want a man’s hands on her. It never occurs to him that Nanon will get over this inhibition. He’s a victim of his own obsession.
When he discovers that she’s engaged to Malabar, Chaney is at his best; he gives an excruciating portrayal of regret. He sacrifices himself in the subsequent scene, realizing that revenge against Malabar isn’t worth letting Nanan be crushed by the horse.
In a very dramatic way, he sees how she will sacrifice herself for Malabar; she loves Malabar, all that Alonzo can do is respect Nanon by accepting that fact. His death is his one act of love. It’s fitting that a totally unsympathetic character not be allowed to survive.
The atmosphere has a claustrophobic feel; the opening view of the circus has a surreal flatness, as though we’re entering a dream world. The hospital scene is also bizarre. It’s the only time we’re let outside the circus, to an urban, antiseptic place of confinement. The Spanish setting, along with the conceit that the circus performers are gypsies, adds a few exotic, folk-tale aspects.
Alonzo starts off doomed, as he can’t break loose from his past. He thinks Nanon can save him and make him happy; but she’s wisely looking out for herself. The title aptly describes Alonzo as one who doesn’t know himself.
The Unknown is a haunting experience–both visually and for Chaney’s masterful performance. 8/10.