The Man Who Laughs (1928)

November 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Man Who Laughs is a remarkable, strange and memorable film.  Based on the novel by Victor Hugo of same name, the film has German actor Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman who is disfigured and abandoned at an early age when his father offends the king. The grin he appears to wear all the time is said to have inspired The Joker, but on a calm and rational, sensitive creature it’s somehow more moving. Veidt is an excellent actor — tall and thin, and with angular features, he’d be striking even without the permanent grin. A scene where he slowly and awkwardly lifts his hands to cover the bottom half of his face in front of a crowd is quite touching.

I won’t go into the details of the plot, except to say that Gwynplaine stumbles into a new family situation, and searches for happiness in his own way, managing quite well until someone discovers his lineage. It’s clearly Veidt who makes the film, turning in a great and very human performance. All the other actors in the film are fine, but seem hampered by the need to over-communicate physically in a silent film. Maybe it isn’t an entirely fair criticism, but by twenty-first century standards these actors are constantly reminding us they’re acting, with grand expressions and gestures. Veidt can be more subtle, and seems to understand that.

It’s quite a transition to switch from watching more recent films to watching a slower silent film, taking its time to visually communicate a great deal: here’s Homo sinking his teeth into a villain (yes, the dog is named Homo).  Here’s the villain struggling.  Here’s Homo sinking his teeth into the villain. But it’s also nice to be reminded that film should take advantage of what it has to offer as a medium, and that’s quite simply to be visually impressive or communicative somehow. The silent era has the disadvantage of feeling remarkably dated, but it was at least an era when filmmaking was perhaps a little more pure, as an artistic pursuit. The Man Who Laughs does have a score, at least, though to be honest scores from this era don’t feel terribly distinctive to me, maybe because the idea of giving different themes to different characters hadn’t yet developed. Though it wasn’t a silent film, there’s a release of the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) with music by Philip Glass. The Man Who Laughs is a memorable film that deserves as much, and I hope it happens someday.

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