The Unknown was the fourth of ten films that Lon Chaney would make with director Tod Browning. Browning was a former circus performer who became a director after working as an assistant to D.W. Griffith and would go onto make a number of other genre classics in both the silent and sound eras. (See below for Tod Brownings other titles of genre interest). Many of Brownings films were centered around circuses. He also made the classic Freaks (1932), a film similarly set in a circus and featuring a doomed love story between a deformed circus performer and an ordinary woman. Freaks has become a deserved cult classic, although the less well known The Unknown is actually a much better film.
What is so startling about The Unknown is its perverse freakishness. There is a wonderfully contorted melodrama of motivation to it all. Indeed, the 1920s was probably the only time when such contorted psychology could have worked. Joan Crawford hates men touching her no motivation is ever offered for such, she just has a pathological fear of mens hands. Enter Lon Chaneys armless knife-thrower who believes that this means hope for him. However, he is a murderer who is just posing at being armless. When he realises that she will find out he is pretending if they ever consummate their relationship, he blackmails a doctor (who he just happens to have unspecified blackmail knowledge of) into severing his arms ... only for Crawford to overcome her fear of mens arms and accept strongman Norman Kerry (whom Chaney had earlier told to just take her in his arms and declare his love in the knowledge that this would drive him away). It is all conducted with marvellous dramatic flourish, reaching a fabulous climax where, as fitting with the arm/armless symbology, Lon Chaney tries to sabotage the strongmans act that involves holding back two horses running in opposite directions on a conveyor belt so that they will tear his arms off.
Lon Chaney gives an amazing performance. For the part, Chaney actually learned how to use his feet as arms and throw knives. There is an amazing opening scene where he shoots Joan Crawfords outer clothes off with a gun and then tosses knives at her, all with his feet. In one sublime scene, we see him sitting at a table, idly scratching his forehead and lighting a cigarette with his feet. You can guarantee none of todays big name/big ego stars would ever go to such painstaking lengths for a performance.
Tod Browning other genre films are: the lost vampire film London After Midnight (1927), also featuring Lon Chaney; the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931), the classic Freaks (1932); Mark of the Vampire (1935); and The Devil-Doll (1936). Also of interest is the documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000) concerning the fascinating career of Chaney.
Modern trailer here:-