Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Macabre Menace (The Unknown)

When I was a kid, I was kind of obsessed with Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr. This was long before I was any kind of amateur cinephile, and in fact predates the explosion of the home video market that enables so much of my current explorations of pop culture history. I have always loved movies on some level, even when my opportunities to see them were limited to occasional theater excursions, special showings at school, and the capricious programming schedule of HBO. Whenever none of those three venues were available, I did what any hungry young nerd would do: I went to the library and checked out books about movies. And given my love of Halloween and my fascination with moviemaking as a form of stagecraft, including practical special effects, it’s little wonder that I would be drawn to the books about the golden age of monster movies, about Karloff and Lugosi and, of course, the Man of a Thousand Faces.

If anything, I thought Chaney was the most compelling of them all because of his professional sobriquet. The idea that he could be so good, and so innovative, in creating grotesqueries in makeup and prosthetics that he would not be associated with a single, iconic role, but dozens, blew my tiny mind. I never saw the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, but I saw black and white still photos from those movies so many times (I basically checked out the book on monster movie makeup every other time I went to the library). In the early 80’s, with Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees just starting to make their own names and indelible imagery known, Lon Chaney was a legend. The Phantom of the Opera was a character I would recognize on sight with the same unconscious cultural acuity as Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse.

(Also, this may go part of the way toward explaining my inherent disdain for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s tragic, trite, slightly-disfigured-yet-still-elegant Phantom. That’s not the real Phantom of the Opera, nosirree.)

(Also-also, getting namechecked in a Warren Zevon song only helps bolster the Chaney pater et fils’s standing, imho.)

At any rate, all of the above is (in my typical stemwinder style) a long roundabout way of saying that I always admired Lon Chaney for his technical skills as an effects designer without having any firsthand knowledge of his (arguably primary) talents as an actor. That is, until I saw The Unknown, which happens to be the selection of the week for the current installment of the 1001 Movies Blog Club. A 1927 silent film starring Chaney as a member of a gypsy circus troupe, one who happens to be freakishly disfigured (except he’s really not) (except in a different way he kind of is) although his face is unmarred. It’s the unadorned features Chaney was born with which have to do the work of building his character, Alonzo, and convey his tumultuous inner life. And Chaney conveys the crap out of it.

The conceit of the story is that Alonzo was born with two thumbs on his left hand as well as various criminal and antisocial tendencies. He commits robberies and acts of violence, then hides in plain sight as a member of the circus known as Alonzo the Armless, hiding his most distinguishing identifying characteristic by binding his arms tight under loose clothing and performing a knife-throwing and sharpshooting act using his nimble feet. I will stop right there and let you go see the movie for yourself right this very second, if you haven’t already, because no doubt you realize I have just described the most amazing premise ever. And I haven’t even gotten to the midget imp Cojo who assists him by lacing and unlacing the harness restraining his arms, or the beautiful assistant Nanon (played by a very young Joan Crawford) Alonzo yearns for, or the strongman Malabar the Mighty who also vies for Nanon’s affections, or the twisted psychological games Alonzo plays with Nanon to keep the upper hand (rimshot) over Malabar.

It’s absurdly overwrought and melodramatic stuff, and that’s just at the outset, as the plot proceeds to include murder and blackmail and illegal medical operations and all the elements necessary for an accidental dismemberment-by-horses. I don't want to detail the narrative too much because it's so much better to experience it firsthand and unspoiled, but suffice to say it’s as if Tod Browning took very seriously the challenge to start with a creep who throws knives with his feet, and then top that. And he succeeded.

Assuming you can embrace and enjoy (or at least politely overlook) the gothic and outrĂ© elements, it’s Lon Chaney’s performance that gives The Unknown a reason to be remembered. Oftentimes when we consider an actor in a given role we talk about the layers and nuances of their performance. In the silent era, nuance was an impossible luxury, since low fidelity film stock and an absence of vocal cues and various other factors all meant that the actors had to pantomime clear back to the cheap seats. Chaney lays it on thick, but to his credit what he’s laying on indisputably contains layers. Alonzo is at heart a con man, trying to hide from the authorities, and trying to win Nanon’s love through despicably underhanded (rimshot again) means, and trying to control everyone and everything around him, including himself, volatile as he is. There are moments where Alonzo is a hateful man with two good arms pretending to be a gentle soul with no arms, and also pretending to be happy for Nanon when she finds sources of happiness separate from Alonzo, while inwardly seething with jealousy, and Chaney brings out every element without saying a word, in the twitch of his eyes or the quiver of a lip as Alonzo struggles, partially but not wholly successfully, to keep his composure. It’s not nuanced, as I say, it’s everything turned up to 11 and thrown together to fight it out across Chaney’s expressive face, but it’s still remarkable. And a worthy inclusion on The List.

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