Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Unknown (1927)

The great Lon Chaney got more mileage out of unobtainable and unrequited love than any other actor I can recall. In this convincingly seedy chiller, he gets one of his rare out-and-out villain roles; of the Chaney films I've seen, even the worst of his characters have a sympathetic side, but the armless knife thrower he plays here has no such qualities about him. He's a bastard through and through, using a faux deformity to hide a real one that could get him arrested or killed. Director Tod Browning knows his way around a circus milieu, which gives this an air of authenticity even as its phoniness is evident (what circus operates with only four people?). The film is a delirious and macabre affair, with sickly ironic touches that presage Browning's brilliant career-killer Freaks and yet another committed and mesmerizing performance from Chaney. If only the love subplot wasn't so limp and unconvincing -- Joan Crawford gets over her fear of men not because the strong man wins her heart but because the script tells her to get over it -- this might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it's flawed but interesting enough; why the "strong man" is so goddamn skinny is beyond me...

Grade: B


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