Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1927. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Story by Tod Browning, scenario by Waldemar Young, titles by Joseph Farnham, based on the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Cinematography by Merritt B. Gerstad. Music by Jack Feinberg, Sam Feinberg. Production Design by Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Lucia Coulter. Film Editing by Harry Reynolds, Errol Taggart.
Life in the colourful and unpredictable world of the circus was a favourite film setting in the days before talkies, and here Tod Browning brings a great deal of disturbing darkness to it in this brief but potent romantic melodrama. It features elements that he would expand upon in his groundbreaking and controversial Freaks five years later, featuring Lon Chaney, the “man of a thousand faces”, as Alonzo, an armless dagger thrower whose trick is lobbing giant knives with his feet at his assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford) while she is strapped to a revolving wheel. What no one but his one companion Cojo knows is that Alonzo isn’t actually armless, it’s the trick of a tight brace he uses, in part to hide the deformity of his one double-thumbed hand. He’s in love with Nanon and assumes they’re perfect for each other, she has spent her lifetime being abused by men and has a pathological intolerance of anyone putting their hands on her. Alonzo reveals his sadistic streak when he goes out with his arms free and is spotted by Nanon’s father, the temperamental owner of the circus, and they get into a fight that leads to Alonzo killing him in a rage. She witnesses the incident but doesn’t recognize the killer, making way for him to have her all to himself: he lets the circus move on to the next town and tells Nanon that he’ll keep her from having to do that drudgery anymore. Unfortunately, she has the hots for the hunky Malabar, who stays in the picture, leading Alonzo to commit a very drastic (and gruesome) act in order to be with the woman he loves. There’s about fifteen minutes missing from the currently known print but you don’t suffer for plot, it crosses all three acts with healthy satisfaction and shows off the superb performances by the actors, while plucking at your nerves with its macabre imagery.