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Review: The Unknown



The Unknown, an unabashedly lurid silent melodrama from the director of Dracula (the Lugosi version) and Freaks, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lon Chaney was among the finest actors of his generation—with or without his iconic monster makeup obscuring his facial features. In an era characterized by exaggerated gestures, he conveys such a wide range of emotions through subtle glances alone; with little more than a twitch of his lip, he ignites the screen with rage, sorrow, relief, jealousy, despair. His eyes are particularly expressive; in every reaction shot, his piercing, calculating gaze clearly communicates the internal conflict tormenting his psyche.

 

His deliciously complex villainous role here is the perfect showcase for his immense talent. Alonzo, the (supposedly) armless carnival knife-thrower, is a rogue through and through—sinister, manipulative, cunning. Beneath his menace, however, lies a vulnerability that evokes a certain degree of sympathy (or pity, at the very least); even his most unrepentantly vile deeds are motivated by recognizably human flaws. It’s an exquisitely nuanced performance, worthy of being ranked alongside Chaney’s renowned work in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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