December 20, 1927 [London After Midnight, The Unknown]
This masks-within-masks is so deeply constituted in his career that the characters he plays, play along, in turn wearing masks, keeping secrets. The Phantom seems to epitomize this, but this year the Chaney Double Mask has become even more unsettling. Just last night he hunched down--not atop Notre Dame, but in London, his face gleefully startled by itself, the eyes bulging, the grin enormous--with twin rows of little pointed rat’s teeth--long hair tangled, tall hat mocking his low-slung frame. And somewhere beneath that is a Professor, a hypnotist--and yes the metaphor is easy, but attractive, the two masks holding our attention with eyes jutting from the sockets, a mad ruse in a silly film--but perhaps not as silly as we’d like, the longer we look into his eyes.
The Unknown lets us peek beneath the masks--and we’re bitten in the attempt. The armless knife-thrower and sharp-shooter leans his brick-like frame against the girl--Joan Crawford as Nanon, who feels safe with Alonzo--yes of course, for you see she has an hysterical fear of men’s arms.
The ironies of all this thump like dancing elephants--but the outlandishness of the plot begins to move in disorienting eddies: Alonzo is not actually armless, while the strong man who wants to encircle Nanon with his sinewy arms is an honest suitor--and so her choice is punished, as Alonzo kills her father--his arms freed from their painful corset, unwrapped with unsettling tenderness by Cojo, Alonzo’s diminutive, fawning assistant--and Alonzo attempts to ensure her love by having his arms amputated--the mask creeping like poison away from Chaney’s face. The Chaney Double Mask no longer merely disguises but decomposes: The mad Alonzo plots revenge (Chaney’s laughing, crying face is a wonder to behold, as he hears that Nanon has overcome her fear of men’s arms and is going to marry the strong man), and attempts to disrupt the strong man’s act--arms bound to horses, who gallop on treadmills--more fearful separation.
We have entered another strange Tod Browning country--and along the way crawled down to a deeper layer of Chaney’s masks, which turn outward like the instinct for self-protection--but with such violence the last-minute rescue seems the only recourse, everything moving so quickly at the end, all the warped psychology of the plot tearing at the faces--the masks?--and leaving nothing but panic and outrage.
I can’t imagine Chaney and Browning going further than this--oh of course I can; but I hope they won’t.