The Man Who Laughs (1928)

There’s a nice bit in Roger Ebert’s appraisal of this film where he describes it as “one of the final treasures of German silent Expressionism”, which is about right; even though the film was in fact a fully American production, it’s chock full of early ’20s German style. Indeed, ever since then critics have mumped about the style getting in the way of convincing us that we’re looking at a story set in early 1700s England, which may be fair enough but the style is presumably what Universal expected from director Paul Leni, whose background was Expressionism in Germany after all. Film was an attempt to recreate the hits they’d had with Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, but by this time Universal no longer had those film’s key ingredient, i.e. Lon Chaney. As such, the solution they found was Leni’s fellow German, Conrad Veidt… Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man disfigured with a surgically-devised permanent grin; a boy who should’ve been the heir of his father’s peerage thus finds himself a sideshow performer, and in that world he finds acceptance. And then his noble past comes calling. Tempting as it is to imagine Chaney doing this, it has to be said Veidt is excellent; with his mouth prosthetically frozen in that smile, all he has is his eyes, and it’s fascinating to watch the upper half of his face constantly have to contradict the lower half. Usually ascribed to the horror genre, that’s actually misleading cos it’s not really a horror film, but it has an importance for the genre even so: it set the visual tone of the ’30s horrors, and, importantly, it brough Jack Pierce to Universal to do make-up. I’ve waited a remarkable number of years to see this film, and I’m pleased to say it was worth the wait; and though the Movietone music-and-effects soundtrack is problematic at times, let’s be glad Universal didn’t go the whole hog with converting it to a proper talkie. Some films are best left silent…

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