A criminal on the run hides in a circus and seeks to possess the daughter of the ringmaster at any cost.
With Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford, director Tod Browning’s The Unknown ranks as one of his greatest achievements in filmmaking along with his Dracula, and Freaks. One of the earliest master of Horror, Browning’s Cinema has put the pattern of American studios Horror flicks. Inspired by the masters of German Expressionism, Browning gave much space for the talent of his stars and paired it with a brilliant mise en scène that is well composed with a sense of the eerie and the mystery.
In The Unknown, Chaney gives one of the greatest performance in a Silent film. Playing the deceiver on many sides, hiding himself from justice, lying about his handicap, and madly in love with a girl he shouldn’t have. Elements of Horror are present, especially with the entire atmosphere of the picture. However, this impostor can be recognized in all of us and the emotions carried by Chaney and his grotesquely over the top performance feels genuine to any of us.
Browning’s film is far from being boring and it is interesting to discover how his Cinema influenced the British Hammer Films. The influence that German Expressionism brought to American Cinema was a clean aesthetic that compared to the realistic American mise en scène was to film theater plays without much effects let’s say à la D.W. Griffith. It then led to the eventual development of Film noir and a use of more darker tones to play on ambiances and style in camera works.
All these technical aspects aside, another important element of this kind of subtle Horror is the fact that the suspense is created by the emotions that the actors are projecting on the silver screen. No blood, no gore, was needed in 1927 to scare and bring the audience to watch the intolerable. There’s also the fact that Chaney portrays a criminal and he is the villain and also the protagonist of the film. The viewer feels for him and has his point of view. Just like Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to crime plots. It is always worth putting the viewer in the villain’s seat.
Early Horror in films created classics in the likes of Nosferatu, Faust, Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Unknown has nothing to envy those titles. It is indeed less known than the other mentioned titles but it is more than worth to discover Tod Browning’s The Unknown.