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Tod Browning
Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry
Tod Browning, Waldemar Young

A criminal on the run hides in a circus and seeks to possess the daughter of the ringmaster at any cost.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English LPCM Stereo
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 67 min.
Price: $69.95
Release Date: 10/17/2023
Available Only As Part of 3-Film “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers” Collection

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian David J. Skal
• “Sideshow Tod” Featurette
• Booklet


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The Unknown: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1927)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 29, 2023)

With 1927’s The Unknown, we find director Tod Browning paired with a few other Hollywood legends. That means we find Lon Chaney Sr. in the prime of his career as well as an early turn from Joan Crawford.

Circus performer “Alonzo the Armless” (Chaney) uses his disability to dazzle patrons with his ability to throw knives and shoot guns with his feet. However, Alonzo actually bears arms – literally – and just lies to pursue his career as well as avoid some prior crimes.

Alonzo loves circus owner Antonio Zanzi’s (Nick De Ruiz) daughter Nanon (Crawford), a fact that complicates his situation. He encounters other issues along the way as he attempts to pursue his muse.

Right before I watched Unknown, I viewed another Browning silent flick: 1925’s The Mystic. Prior to that, my entire Browning experience consisted of his two 1930s classics: 1931’s and 1932’s Freaks.

As I noted in my review of Mystic, it felt like a departure from the image Browning now enjoys as the master of the macabre. While it alluded to supernatural elements, it stayed as a fairly standard thriller most of the time.

Whatever the case, it worked. I thought Mystic created an engaging tale that made me hope Unknown would continue that winning streak.

Alas, it failed to do so. Little more than a standard melodrama with a circus twist, Unknown grows tedious well before its brief running time concludes.

Indeed, much of the movie just feels like a showcase for Chaney’s talents, as it portrays his ability to display deft work with his feet. Actually, shot composition makes it clear a lot of the stunts involved a “foot double”, but Chaney still gets his time to embrace his “Man of 1000 Faces” image.

Regardless, Unknown provides an inert drama. Unlike Mystic - which only briefly uses a carnival as its location - it fits this Criterion set’s “Sideshow Shockers” vibe alongside Freaks well in terms of characters and settings, but it fails to become something that seems especially intriguing.

Really, the only question here revolves around how long Alonzo can keep up his act and what might happen to him. The film doesn’t reveal his “non-armless” status until about one-third of its running time, but after that, Alonzo’s secret turns into the primary plot point.

But not a very intriguing plot point, especially because Browning wraps this issue into a blah romance. It doesn’t help that the movie paints Nanon as a hottie tired of men who constantly paw her so she takes solace in the company of a dude literally unable to do so.

Inevitably, this leads toward a sense of betrayal when Nanon learns Alonzo’s secret. The film builds toward this reveal in a tedious manner.

Of course, Unknown comes up with another contrivance I won’t reveal in an attempt to thicken its plot. This seems just as silly as the rest.

Other twists pop up along the way, but they can’t save this clunker. I find it interesting to see a very young Crawford but otherwise this turns into a tedious melodrama.

The Disc Grades: Picture C-/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

The Unknown appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Given the film’s advanced age, I didn’t expect perfection from it, but the result nonetheless seemed problematic.

That said, sharpness generally worked pretty well. More than a few soft spots materialized, but these didn't dominate, so the majority of the film showed appropriate delineation.

Blacks seemed reasonably dark, and shadows felt clear enough. Contrast occasionally leaned a little bright but this wasn’t a real concern.

By far the biggest issue with The Unknown stemmed from its nearly incessant print flaws. Scratches abounded, and these became a persistent distraction along with tears and marks.

As noted, I can’t expect a nearly 100-year-old movie to look flawless, though the 1925 version of Ten Commandments came shockingly close, and Browning’s Mystic did better too. I hoped this 2023 presentation of The Unknown would look half as good, but instead, it offered a consistently flawed image that I gave a “C-“ solely due to its vintage.

In terms of audio, the Blu-ray came with a LPCM stereo track that solely presented Philip Carli’s new score. This offered no instrumentation beyond piano in an attempt to semi-replicate what audiences might’ve heard in 1927.

That said, the disc reproduced Carli’s score well, as the piano sounded pretty rich and full. Stereo spread appeared smooth and distinctive too, so the track suited the production.

A few extras accompany the film, and we get an audio commentary from film historian David J. Skal. He provides a running, screen-specific look at historical context, cast and crew, themes and interpretation, the shooting script, production issues and the movie’s legacy.

A veteran of the format, Skal always brings us good commentaries, and this one follows suit. Skal covers a fine array of topics and makes this an informative chat.

Sideshow Tod lasts 32 minutes, 14 seconds. It provides an interview with author Megan Abbott.

The program examines Tod Browning’s work, with an emphasis on the three movies in this “Sideshow Shockers” set. We don’t get a lot of background for the films, but Abbott offers some reasonably interesting perspective.

Finally, we get a booklet with photos, credits and an essay from Farran Smith Nehme. It finishes the package well.

With Hollywood legends both in front of and behind the camera, The Unknown promised a winner. Unfortunately, the film delivers little more than dull romance and silly contrivances. The Blu-ray brings erratic visuals as well as appropriate audio and a few bonus features. The Unknown deserves attention due to the personnel involved but it doesn’t become an interesting movie.

Note that this Criterion Blu-ray of The Unknown only appears as part of a three-film collection called “Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers”. In addition to Mystic, it also provides 1925’s The Mystic and 1932’s Freaks.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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