Sunday, September 27, 2009

A farewell to arms

(Normally I would ask someone to smack me for that subject heading, but it's OK because of "Evil Dead 2.")

There's a pile of classic horror in my Netflix queue, and last night I kicked it off with Tod Browning's "The Unknown" from 1927, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (In the Chaneyesque spirit of transformation, Crawford in this movie pretty much looks like every other 1920s actress, with her sleek bob and narrow lips. I would never have recognized her.) I first read about this movie in David J. Skal's wonderful "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween"; Skal is fascinated by Browning, who of course also directed the carnival classic "Freaks" as well as a little something called "Dracula." In "The Unknown," Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a Madrid circus performer adept at throwing knives and lighting cigarettes with his toes, and smitten with Crawford's sexy Nanon. But Alonzo has a secret -- two secrets! Not only is he not really armless, but he's hiding in the circus because he's a notorious criminal, and the armless act is the perfect way to conceal his distinctive double thumb -- which leaves a notable mark on all his strangulation victims. The armless act is also useful because Nanon has a particular horror of grabby men, and she finds Alonzo appealing because, as she shyly tells him, "You're the only man I can turn to without fear." Circus strongman Malabar (played by Norman Kerry, Raoul from "The Phantom of the Opera") scampers around after Nanon with his arms out, but she will have none of him.

Like every movie monster, Alonzo is brought down by his affection for the beautiful woman, in a series of utterly unbelievable and awesome plot twists. A secret midnight surgery is performed! A dramatic change of heart takes place! The climax involves a pair of rampaging horses on treadmills! This movie just has to be seen to be believed.

I don't suppose it's necessary to say that Lon Chaney is amazing, but you just can't take your eyes off him, whether he's making eyes at Nanon or grouchily kicking his feet up to light himself a cigarette. When he realizes his evil (and insanely elaborate) scheme has backfired on him, the camera never leaves his face as he passes through heartrending shock, grief and rage, finally ending in deranged, mocking laughter. "Look!" says the oblivious Nanon: "Alonzo is laughing at the way things have happened!" You're laughing in disbelief too, but Chaney makes you feel for the man. My dashing Spanish hat is off to him. Netflix this, people.

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