The Unknown (Tod Browning / U.S., 1927):

The opening erotic dance is rather alarmingly loaded: Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) and Nanon (Joan Crawford) on a rotating platform under the big top, a fine female form outlined by hurled daggers, a live sex show, just about. Circus Zanzi is a place of such subterranean spectacle, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) bends iron bars and flexes his biceps for the gypsy beauty, but she’s repelled by masculine thrust. Lacking "beastly hands," Alonzo is the one man Nanon can come near; away from her eyes, he removes his girdle to reveal the fugitive strangler’s murderous limbs, tightened by unrequited love. Unnecessary surgery to the rescue! "If God intended us not to masturbate," says George Carlin, "he’d have made our arms shorter." Tod Browning runs his rousing, cruel joke on the mutilated artiste and the frigid muse along the lines of Freud’s description of Oedipus in The Uncanny, "the self-blinding of the mythical criminal." (Another Sigmund gag: From a shot of Alonzo being hugged platonically by Nanon, we cut to the dwarf cohort Cojo, chortling and puffing on a cigar.) Experimenting with filmic form as much as with body shapes, Browning places gauzy filters on the lens to heighten the artificiality of the "normal" romance, and uses a matron’s adjustment of her opera binoculars to stage a rare tracking shot. The angularity of the gypsy caravan is contrasted with the sterility of the operating room, where the film's most chilling moment takes place: Chaney slowly running his palm along his shoulder to pantomime the surgeon’s saw. Afterwards, the heroine hugs him again and is startled by his thinner frame. He smiles: "Not sick... but I have lost some flesh." The endless contortions of human desire provide an imagist goldmine for Buñuel and Bataille and Jodorowsky, the wacky-macabre, horse-stretched climax gets a most expressive tribute in Strangers on a Train. With Nick De Ruiz, John George, and Frank Lanning. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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