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February 24, 2005

Review: The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs

Warning: review of a silent film ahead!

The Man Who Laughs is a really terrific film, almost entirely because of the performance of the starring actor, Conrad Veidt. The film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a pretty predictable affair -- you don't go into this one for the plot, which is Dickensian¹ in scope.

Just to give you a brief taste of it, the story basically tells us about the young heir to a peerage who is kidnapped by King James the Second and given to a group of gypsies via his jester (who has the unlikely name of Barkilphedro). In any case, a gypsy surgeon alters the boy in some way, producing on him a mouth that is impossible to close, leaving him constantly grinning. He makes his way from the coast where he is abandoned by the gypsies, finds a baby en route, and ends up at a "philosopher's" hovel. The philosopher, Ursus, takes him in and raises both children.

We move forward into Elizabeth's reign. Barkilphedro is still around, the Duchy owed to the young man Gwynplaine is in the hands of a pretty young woman, and Gwynplaine and the infant girl Dea (blind since birth) have grown. Gwynplaine acts in plays written by Ursus -- but mostly, he acts as an attraction much in the way freak shows did. He is "The Man Who Laughs", owing to his disfigurement.

We know where all of this is going, for the most part. Gwynplaine will come under some sort of temptation, will find his love to be true, may or may not regain his place in society, Barkilphedro will get his, all of this is known by anyone who has ever read anything from this era. Part Pagliacci, part Great Expectations.

What is truly extraordinary is Veidt's performance. I was completely taken in by his amazing grimace². At a few points in the film, I even slowed down the playback, single-framing it to see if I could count how many teeth were exposed -- 12 on the top. If you take your fingers and draw your lips back far enough to be able to see 12 teeth up there, you'll know what kind of pain Veidt must have been in to put forth this performance. I'm sure his face was contorted via some sort of metal contraption, like Lon Chaney used in The Phantom of the Opera, but the amount of expression Veidt nonetheless manages to convey with eyes and manner is simply awe-inspiring.

He has several nervous tics, befitting his character -- the most significant is to constantly bring his hand or arm up near his mouth, to cover it a bit or entirely, like a man who lives constantly in shame for what he is. Although I frequently wondered if someone with his mouth constantly open could have survived childhood in the 17th century, I was willing to suspend disbelief if only to fully enjoy Veidt's performance.

There are other items of interest here as well, things that I was surprised to see. The first was a very short bit of nudity -- the usurping Duchess' posterior was briefly revealed as she rose from her bath. I thoroughly didn't expect that -- but of course, it wasn't really until the 1950s that a prudish eye was turned towards American cinema. Another is the striking number of seriously ugly actors -- almost every supporting character is fairly hideous, with enormous noses, weak chins, frazzled hair, dirt, and every other kind of blemish one could imagine. Having been raised on Hollywood's reality, it was really something to see a time when not every woman on camera was a starlet, when not every man looked like someone who might someday be a leading man -- sure, that's an oversimplification, but you know what I mean.

If you like silent films and haven't seen this, you should³. If you love great performances of subtlety and grace, Veidt's is one to watch. Ignore the flaws (for example, the almost graceless portrayal of a blind woman, for which I blame both Mary Philbin and the director), and concentrate on what this man could achieve without speech. It's something to behold.

***½ (out of four)

A little note about how I happened upon this film: I added this to the queue based on Roger Ebert's Great Movies review. I don't remember now what he had to say about it; there are probably bits of film history and stuff that I don't recall from it. I don't always agree with Ebert (see my review of Sky Captain and contrast it with his), but everyone's got to have a starting point.

²It suddenly occurs to me that Veidt may have been the prototype for The Joker. I'm actually kind of curious to watch the first Batman movie again to see if Nicholson was aware of this film.
³Don't let Netflix' poor description fool you -- this is not a horror movie in the slightest.

Posted by Brett Douville at February 24, 2005 07:49 PM