The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dir. Paul Leni
Written by J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker from the novel by Victor Hugo
Starring Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Brandon Hurst, Olga Baklanova, Cesare Gravina
Despite the startling visage of the title character, this gloomy expressionist melodrama isn’t quite a horror film. But you’d never know that from the way it opens: a sadistic king (James II of England) is malevolently taunting a nobleman who has displeased him, sending him to cruel death in an iron maiden moments after informing him that his devilish jester Barkilphedro has instructed gypsys to horribly mutilate his son’’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool of a father." Since we don’t see the boy, you at first gotta assume that he’s just yankin’ the poor guy’s chain, no one would really do that. I mean, who would even think to do that, let alone actually go to the trouble of finding gypsies willing to pull the trigger on this cockamimie plan, especially since the victim’s father ain’t gonna live to see the finished product anyway. I figured this was going to be like Sam Jackson’s made-up bible passage from PULP FICTION, just a bunch of cold-blooded game James II likes to talk to some sucker before busting a cap in his ass (in this case, busting many spikes throughout his whole body. Talk about getting medieval on your ass!). But then I remembered that the title of this film is THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and figured no, that’s probably literally true.
Sure enough, we meet our unlucky hero --name o’ Gwynplaine-- while he’s still a child, his mouth already butchered and covered by a bandana. The gypsies that were supposed to take him to some other country for some reason panic and dump him, and he wanders homeless through a truly chilling expressionistic landscape of hanged corpses and swirling ice. On the way, he pulls a baby out of the arms of its dead and frozen parent, and nearly dies of exposure himself before being taken in by the kindly Ursus (Cesare Gravina, 1915’s MADAME BUTTERFLY).
|Just hangin' around. If there's a narrative reason this looks like some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, the movie sure doesn't make it clear. But I love it.|
Everything up to this point is most definitely horror; the king’s room is absolutely drenched in gloomy shadows and weird, exaggerated statues which seem to imply some kind of sinister but unknowable agenda that has set all this suffering in motion. Likewise, the grim hellscape through which wanders the disfigured child carrying an orphaned baby is as nightmarish an image as I have ever seen. The whole experience is immensely immersive and unnerving, truly one of the most powerful openings to a film I’ve seen in a long, long time. Director Paul Leni created (as near as I can tell) the very first ever horror anthology, the 1926 WAXWORKS,* and also the hugely influential ghost story THE CAT AND THE CANARY, so he certainly knew his way around horror imagery, and probably even helped invent the whole concept of horror cinema (he died of blood poisoning only one year after this was released, the mind reels as to what he might have done had he made it to the sound era). With Leni’s talent for atmosphere combined with the grotesqueness of the imagery and of the wounds suffered by the innocent child, there’s clearly a really disturbing horror movie being set up here.
|You haven't truly made it as an intimidating statue til an evil jester has come out of a secret door hidden in your ass.|
But then the movie more or less abandons the explicit horror imagery and moves in another direction entirely. We catch up with the adult Gwynplaine, now played by an almost unbelievably good Conrad Veidt (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI), working as a kind of combination actor/sideshow freak, exhibiting his deformity as part of a play conceived his his adopted father Ursus. He’s enormously self-conscious about his appearance, but audiences are fascinated by him, he’s achieved some minor celebrity and, if not wealth, at least financial stability through this setup, even though we can see it tears him up inside to have people gawking at him all day. He’s also in love with the now-grown baby he saved all those years ago, which actually seems incredibly creepy since they grew up together and everything but I guess that was OK back then. At least it’s not as bad as Wuthering Heights. But jesus, people of the past, how bout romantically fixating on someone outside your immediate circle of adopted siblings, huh?
|Yes, this in the hero of our little tale.|
Anyway, what follows is sort of an emotionally brutal melodrama, as Gwynplaine moons over the admittedly adorable (but blind, forgot to mention that) Drea (Mary Philbin, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) and also gets involved with an extremely unlikely plot twist whereby this former enemies discover his true identity, arrest him, …..aaaand then try to give him back the enormous fortune left to him by his nobleman father? Not quite sure how that one works out or why they would try to do that, but anyway there’s a catch, he has to marry the openly villainous Duchess Josiana (the immensely delectable Olga Baklanova) in order to seal the deal. There’s a weird scene where he meets her and she kinda seems like she’s into him, they almost seal the deal, but what the fuck is happening here I surely do not know. By the end, some sort of courtly intrigue has happened which causes Gwynplaine to run away from about a thousand armed extras and go on an extravagant chase scene (complete with stunts and special effects) across the London rooftops.
This is all perfectly fine, but I must confess that despite a phenomenal performance from Veidt the movie lessens in impact dramatically as it goes along and moves farther away from the Gwynplaine’s personal pain into the weird political machinations of Duchesses and queens and jesters (the one who ordered his disfigurement is now some sort of machiavellian power-behind-the-throne advisor, who would have thought that a career in jesting would offer so many opportunities for advancement? Damn you a third time, high school guidance counselor!). Intertitles are not the best medium to convey subtle nuances in plot, so I must confess I don’t really understand what the villains were trying to accomplish here, or if they managed to do whatever it was or not. Veidt conveys so much achingly raw emotion with just his eyes that even though his melodrama with Drea is a little arch, it still manages to be enormously effecting and the movie is absolutely gripping even when not much happens. But Gwynplaine has a lot less personally invested in the whole plot to get his inheritance back; all he wants is to bone his blind adopted sister and so he’s completely passive about the whole inheritance thing. Since there’s not really a ton at stake here, as the movie shifts ever more to this plotline it deflates, despite the obvious expense put into recreating the House of Lords and the enormous action sequence that follows it (reportedly Universal poured over $1,000,000 dollars into this production, an unheard-of fortune for that time).
|I think we've all been here.|
Scale, of course, is almost always the enemy of good horror. Horror is personal, painful, grueling; scale is more the purview of the action film, which is more or less what THE MAN WHO LAUGHS becomes by its end. Gwyplaine is undoubtedly in danger with thousands of armed Englishmen chasing him through the streets, but so is James Bond from his armies of orange-jumpsuited henchmen. But it’s just not all that scary when something gets this energetic and frantic and removed from the intimate, the personal and the psychological. Running away from a bunch of hired goons is hard, but there’s an excitement to the danger, almost a giddy joy in the act of escape. But living everyday with your face carved into a ghastly clown grimace? That’s something truly, deeply scary, the kind of thing that sticks with you, that worms its way into your subconscious and stays there. That’s horror.
Gwynplaine is a great character and Veidt gives a truly classic performance in a difficult role with painful facial prosthetics. But Hugo’s novel, which seems to be some kind of cultural critique on the aristocratic classes, doesn’t translate that well to the modern age and to silent cinema. The film looks consistently beautiful, but the further it gets from Gwynplaine’s personal tragedy, the more alienating and incomprehensible it gets, a real shame considering how stunning the first half is. It never gets outright bad, it simply downplays its best aspects and ends up merely good, not quite sublime like it is in its best moments. Still, as a whole it’s a highly worthwhile effort, full of amazing imagery which has inspired everything from Batman’s Joker (reputedly designed after artist Bill Finger watched the movie) to De Palma’s 2006 THE BLACK DAHLIA (the real life murder victim had her mouth slices open in a similar way, and the De Palma incorporated images from this into his movie). There’s something by equal measures tragic and profoundly unsettling about Veidt’s performance and appearance here which transcends any problems the film has and moves directly to being independently transcendent and iconic. Who’s laughing now, cruel world?
* which is now officially on my radar for next year