Friday, 3 September 2010


Taking place in a circus, like Browning’s better known Freaks, The Unknown centres around Alonzo the Armless, who uses his feet to perform incredible stunts. His earnestness and disability catch the attention of Nanon, the circus owner’s daughter, who is fed up of being pawed over by her male admirers. Unbeknownst to her, Alonzo is actually able-bodied and employs a corset tied by his friend to disguise himself. When the circus owner discovers him in his uncorseted state, Alonzo kills him, an act witnessed from a distance by Nanon. Because of his armlessness, Alonzo is above suspicion and he grows closer to Nanon, even having his arms removed surgically so as to not have to hide them from her. But just as he believes he is finally getting what he deserves, Nanon reveals her love for the circus strongman, spurring him into jealous action.

Browning’s love of the macabre makes the theme of infidelity in The Unknown so much more vivid as abnormality becomes Alonzo’s alibi for trustworthiness. Nanon’s disgust for the hands of men is a clear reference to the predatory nature of male sexuality, and Alonzo’s secret, coupled with his double thumb, make him a particular threat to Nanon, one that only the audience recognises. His decision to have his arms amputated is in effect a misguided castration, a metaphor deeply shocking even by implication. Lon Chaney does a commendable job in an unusually difficult role. Carefully designed and expertly paced, The Unknown is a hugely entertaining thriller.

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