The Unknown is an important film for several reasons, which I'll consider in a moment, but its plot, unfortunately, isn't one of them…. [It] is a variant of the beauty and the beast theme, with the beast this time (Chaney) being a bitter and vengeful knife-thrower in a Madrid circus named Alonzo. He is apparently armless and propels his knives at Nanon, his beautiful partner, by means of his toes….
The skill with which [The Unknown] spins a fabric of suspense illustrates the fine technique of director Tod Browning. He never achieved the fame in this field that Alfred Hitchcock has, perhaps because the quality he stresses most in his convoluted plots … is irony, and irony leaves the viewer with an unsatisfied and thwarted feeling. Hitchcock eschews it, and occasionally uses humor. Browning never did. (p. 452)
The Unknown is not a horror film, at least not in the sense that The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are. There's no mutilated or supernatural creature going haywire and wrecking his vengeance on society. The Unknown is a suspense film, with suspense beginning almost in the first few feet, which show the circus tents flapping wildly in the night wind, and resembling shrouds. The lighting is somber throughout, except in the scenes in which [Nanon] appears, which are all illuminated, so that light becomes her leit-motif (her image in...
(The entire section is 563 words.)