'The Unknown' - Lon Chaney Collection

Discussion in 'Classic' started by marioscido, Nov 14, 2003.

  1. marioscido

    marioscido New Member

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    I finally watched 'The Unknown' (1927) last night. IMO, it is the best Chaney/Browning collaboration and one of the most lurid and interesting films from the silent era. This is a film I've wanted to see for years. And I wasn't disappointed. The source material used for the transfer is quite good; a print found at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris was used. This is no 'Haxan' or 'Metropolis' in terms of expensive restoration, but the image is quite good. The black and whites are solid and the grey levels are complex. There is speckling on the print, but it is quite normal for a film that is 75 years old. However, the image is very crisp. One can clearly see Browning's experimental use of silk stockings over the lens in certain scenes. The folks at TCM have re-done the title cards (including fake speckling on them, which is a little annoying), and a brash soundtrack has been added to wonderful effect. This is great film! One of the most interesting horror films from the late 1920s.

    The new Lon Chaney Collection from TCM is really wonderful: 3 feature films, the reconstructed still version of 'London after Midnight,' a 90 min. documentary on Chaney, commentary tracks, and more! Highly recommended. I will check back in after I've seen some of the other material.
     
  2. Hammerfan

    Hammerfan Guest

    I can't believe I forgot this release! Even with my Joan Crawford TROG avatar to remind me, I forgot. Now I am going to promptly order this! I think this is a brilliant film as well and have loved it for years. Chaney is phenomenal, plus its a great look at flapper era Joan Crawford. I guess this would be her only horror film for 35 years (until "Baby Jane"). Thank you for posting this! Can't wait to get it.






     
  3. Jimbo

    Jimbo The Bloodstained Shadow

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    I am going to order this set this weekend.Cant wait to see these films.
     
  4. Horrorcore

    Horrorcore Guest

    I hell of alot better then the phantom of the opera ultimate edition. How they screwed that up God only knows. All fast action is blured its a real shame.
     
  5. MaxRenn

    MaxRenn Member

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    I agree - "The Unknown" is one of the strangest silent films you will see. I'm becoming more fascinated with Tod Browning and some of the stuff he has in his films.

    Mario, what did you think of "Laugh, Clown Laugh" from the boxset?
     
  6. marioscido

    marioscido New Member

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    I've always defended Browning to folks who like to parrot the idea put forward by a few critics that he was a second-rate director, or that he was never able to transition into the sound era, or that the Spanish version of 'Dracula' is superior to his version... Ludicrous! Anyway, I agree with you MR, I too am becoming more and more fascinated with his work, especially after seeing 'The Unknown.' This guy was doing some of the most challenging and transgressive film work of the 20s and 30s.

    I still haven't watched any of the other films in the set, but hope to do so in the next few days. I will let you know.
     
  7. MaxRenn

    MaxRenn Member

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    I'm not sure that Browning is a top-class director. Personally I feel that "Dracula" doesn't show him at his best - the second half becomes a very talky, stagey movie.

    However what I like about Browning is his focus on the outsiders of society and his ability to throw in some bizarre behavior that he treats sympathetically. This reaches its peak in "Freaks" but also features in many of his other movies that I've seen. I mean, Alonzo's behavior in "The Unknown" is bizarre but Browning almost makes it seem like he makes a good decision when he decides to
    amputate both his arms
    . :eek1:

    I just watched his silent movie "The Unholy Three" in which three circus performers team up to rob houses. Lon Chaney plays a ventriloquist who disguises himself as an old woman who runs a pet shop and Harry Earles plays a dwarf who masquerades as a baby! Not your run-of-the-mill characters, yet they are portrayed realistically and sympathetically.


    What was Browning's reason for doing that?
     
  8. etale

    etale Guest

    Browning was much better in teh silent era than in the sound era, though I liked both FREAKS and THE DEVIL DOLL.
     
  9. marioscido

    marioscido New Member

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    I have to disagree with you here. 'Dracula' might have a dated feel today, but remember that it was not so in its own context. Films were, more generally, talky in the early sound period. And it makes perfect sense that they were, because that’s what was expected of the new ‘talkies’! In my opinion, 'Dracula' succeeds where 'Frankenstein' does not: namely, in its quiet creeping sense of uncanniness. Whale was a brilliant director, but he approached his craft very differently than Browning. For Browning, fear is conjured through the uncanny in 'Dracula.' By uncanny here, I mean specifically that sense of knowing something familiar (at-homeness) to be hidden or repressed. Todorov sees it as central to the 'fantastic' genre. At the beginning of the sound era, when people were tuning into dialogue through this new anticipated technology, Browning forced people to listen to the silences instead! The familiar silences of the silent era (dialogue, not music) disappeared with the introduction of sound. What became familiar instead, and highly anticipated, was the potential of film to be more like theatre. Browning understood that if he played with silences he would be playing with people’s expectations. Silences were experienced as weird and unfamiliar in 'Dracula,' creating a sense of the uncanny, ie, something anticipated as familiar, but hidden. I think this is one of the reasons 'Dracula' creeped people out in 1931 and seems so out-of-synch to later viewers. It’s not all about Bela! For James Whale, fear is conjured up through spectacle, with all the shouts and screams of a pitch-forked vigilante group. He gave his audience what they were looking for: loud monstrous spectacle. A very different effect. I think Browning knew what he was doing when he experimented with silences in 'Dracula.' For like Dracula himself, they seemed unearthly to a viewer who was anticipating that the new talkies would be just that, talkies. With ‘Freaks,’ Browning will move in the direction of Whale’s spectacle, which is fitting for a film about circus freaks. But the figure of Dracula required more subtlety that this, for Dracula himself is refined and aristocratic, but yet there is something about him that makes one uneasy, that makes one hesitate. This is the world of the uncanny. Browning was a master of manipulation and he knew in 1931 what strings to pull. And then there is the great cinematography of Karl Freund… Sorry if I’m long-winded about his, but it unnerves me that the dominant thing to parrot in discussions about Browning is this long-standing critique about his use of sound, which is just not true, IMO.

    The stockings:
    The silent era was full of experimentation. With the advent of the sound era, filmmakers were much more restrained by the bulkiness of sound equipment and its limitations on shooting locations, etc. Silk stockings, like tinting, was part of this experimentation, which makes the silent era so interesting. The stockings were a kind of diffusion that was used to give a scene an other-worldly feel. The use of diffusion became widespread of course, but it has its roots in these experiments.
     
  10. etale

    etale Guest

    On the commentary track to DRACULA, David Skal said that Universal had originally wanted to do a film much closer to Stoker's novel, but the depression struck and they decided to adapt the play instead.
     
  11. marioscido

    marioscido New Member

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    I watched 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh' last night and I was really interested in its subtle underlying theme of incest. It was like watching 'I Pagliacci,' a great opera from the south of Italy (Calabria actually, where my family is from), with this strange hinting at a quasi-incest narrative. The film is touching and gripping, mostly because of Chaney's heartfelt performance, with a dash of uneasiness underlying Tito and Simonella's relationship. The silent era was able to hint at taboo subject matter more than the films from the sound era, and this is a good example of how these films challenged dominant cultural norms. Good stuff. Definitely worth seeing, and the transfer on the TCM disc is quite good, with crisp images and a solid gray scale throughout.

    Has anyone seen this film?
     
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2003
  12. etale

    etale Guest

    Great opera.
    The title for the Chaney movie is, of course, a reference to the famous aria "Veste La Juba."
     
  13. MaxRenn

    MaxRenn Member

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    I really like "Laugh Clown Laugh" which I saw on TCM earlier this year. I'm not too familiar with the story of Pagliacci beyond the theme of the clown who makes everybody laugh but cannot find happiness. That theme is really well done in "Laugh..." and I found Chaney's character's plight very moving. There's some similarity with his character in "He Who Gets Slapped". Anyway, the central relationship in "Laugh..." is certainly not something that you would see in a modern movie - way too taboo. It actually made me a little uneasy the first time I saw it.

    Mario, I agree with your comments on "Dracula", although I guess I draw a different conclusion. The first part of "Dracula" succeeds very well because of the uncanniness you mention most of which is created "silently" (closeups of Lugosi, the mysterious stagecoach, the errie castle interiors) but as soon as Lugosi leaves his castle the film gets bogged down in talk. Obviously, as the film is an early talkie, Browning was unsure exactly how to use sound and felt obliged to put in lots of dialogue. For me it really spoils the effect of the movie although the "silent" parts are still excellent.

    Be sure to post when you see "Ace of Hearts". Kind of a different movie with a surprisingly topical and controversial plot.
     
  14. etale

    etale Guest

    In the documentary on the DVD, it was pointed out that the film was run silent in many older theaters not wired for sound.
     
  15. marioscido

    marioscido New Member

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    I agree with what you are saying about 'Dracula,' MaxRenn. The staginess of the play, on which the film is based, does become more pronounced in the second half in order to move the plot forward. I'm not sure I would agree that Browning was unsure how to use sound however. I think there are wonderfully ceepy scenes in the second half as well. The one that stands out is the killing of the Count in the last minutes. A brilliantly crafted scene IMO.

    I will let you know when I get to 'Ace of Hearts.'
     
  16. etale

    etale Guest

    No argument that the first half is a masterpiece. That's why the film is considered a classic. However, I still feel the film is a letdown in the second half.
    I feel that the Spanish version, filmed at the same time, was far superior.
     
  17. Ash28M

    Ash28M Active Member

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    I just watched The Unknown last night. That could have possibly have been the most entertaining Silent Film i have seen. Great stuff and why ahead of it's time. I also believe i read somewhere that Alejandro Jodorowsky was influenced greatly by the film as is where he got some of his ideas for Santa Sangre.
     
  18. X-human

    X-human I ate my keys

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    I disagree with the Spanish version being better, I especially think the acting in the English release is far supperior. Van Helshing in the Spanish version was a goof while in the English version he was a strategic and cunning foe for Dracula. Reinfield truely seemed mad in the English version and his scenes were arrange a bit better.

    About Brown vs. Whales; I consider Whale's framing, pacing and camera movement to be on top of the heap even by today's standards. To say the he knew and gave the audiences what they wanted is not such a bad thing, a great director is able to do what he wants and balance it with what the audience would want. It's not a concession but a selection. Yet it's interesting to note that there are more Todd Browning movies on DVD then James Whales.

    Of Brown's work I've only seen Dracula, but after seeing the Spanish version of Dracula I saw all the subtleties that were lacking when compared to the layered English version. Mina was especially powerful in the English version, which I'm positive has much to do with the cinematography. The use of silence was excellent, it is something that has stuck with me for a long time since I was a child. Everything I can point as being great about Dracula are mostly moments of silence. Even today I agrue with MTV film students that the best use of sound also means the right lack of sound.

    So I'll agree, Todd Brown is a man who is in need of further investigation...
     
  19. Lyle Horowitz

    Lyle Horowitz Miscreant

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    The Unknown is one of my 20 favorite films of all-time, so this makes me more interested in Santa Sangre, although El Topo is literally the worst film I've ever seen.
     
  20. Ash28M

    Ash28M Active Member

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    El Topo and Holy Mountain are alot different then Santa Sangre. I couldn't really get into the other two either, but i loved Santa Sangre and i wouldn't have a problem placing in my top 20 Horror films of all time
     

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