The Man Who Laughs has long been revered as being one of the most striking silent films but this was my first venture into its world and my, it’s a truly remarkable experience. Directed by Paul Leni, with cinematography from Gilbert Warrenton, this new 4K restoration and release from Eureka Entertainment is a wonderful education of the artistic creation and invention of the era.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, a man who knows all about atmospherics, The Man Who Laughs revolves around Gwynplain (played by Conrad Veidt), a carnival act in 17th century England who is stared and laughed at because of his permanent smile, which was the result of his face being mutilated when he was a child. While he’s grateful for his work and friends, he’s also clearly psychologically scared by his place in life, despite the love of his female companion Dea (Mary Philbin), a fellow performer who is blind. For whilst Dea loves Gwynplaine for who he is, he doesn’t feel worthy of her love due to his disfigurement.
The visual impact of The Man Who Laughs is instantaneous. Its sense of the unusual, the darkness and the edges of life feel inspired by German expressionism, with many moments of self-turmoil submerged in shadows and mystery. While the over-all runtime for the silent film is a long one, and I have to admit I struggled to focus for the entire film, this is a powerful watch, with refined performances and a continual sense of the unknown over what’s coming next.
What’s smart about Leni’s adaptation is that it’s still a compelling story, there’s more than just self-doubt and unrequited love, there’s true vision and progressive narrative. We initially meet Gwynplaine as a child, who’s left on the Cornish (or Portland depending on where it was released) coast by the men who gave him his ‘forever’ smile. It’s a brutal opening which represents the turmoil inside but, along the way, also finds peaks of joy and brightness. Whilst the men are strange and possibly dangerous, the women are beautiful and alluring in individual ways, balancing out the dark and light.
The Man Who Laughs is also a vast production, representing the poor and rich with equal commitment. We see royalty and regalia, half-naked bathing ladies and the dirty edges of criminals amongst the darkness of the soul that always lingers beneath. In the large acts, the scenery is expansive, showing off the wealth of the Royals and juxtaposing it with characters who knows what they need to do in order to be wealthier than ever. In the moments at Southwark Fair, it may be joyful but it’s also dark and grimy throughout.
In the base level, The Man Who Laughs is your classic story of the poor trying to make a better life for themselves, the rich trying not to lose it and those insidious characters on the fringes of others wealth; stealing and killing wherever they can, in order to take it for themselves. But this is also a love story, that of Gwynplaine accepting who he is for who he is, especially when he had the love of Dea and, yet, he still finds it hard to believe that anyone that could like the ‘monster’ he does. But, truthfully, he’s a kind man and not that monstrous, it’s just when everyone laughs at you all the time, how can you believe in yourself? Will you? Or will you let the crowds get inside your head?
It’s impossible to not mention the inspiration for modern Gotham and The Joker that lies here, as it has been confirmed it was a direct one. His huge, white teeth stuck in a smile are unforgettable and, for the big shows, he puts on the white make-up and becomes exactly the Joker that many of us know today. Both tragic and magnificent, the crowds laugh and jest, it is disturbing and you can see how influential it would have been and, indeed, continues to be. If we’re talking psychological, then it’s a given. You can see the filthy streets of a Gothic Gothma, plus the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batverse and Joaquin Phoenix’s surely have direct connections, let alone graphic novels such as The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, and also Brian Azzarello’s Joker, in their nature.
But to just talk about now wouldn’t be fair on the film, it wouldn’t celebrate the sheer courage and genius of creating a character nearly 100 years ago that’s stood the test of time. He’s deeply sad, very affecting and a true study of human nature in all its circumstances. This impact comes down to an exceptional performance from Conrad Veidt, who somehow keeps something that could be lost in comedy, on the right side of tragic and intriguing. Alongside him, Mary Philbin is sympathetic and authentic. Special mention must also go to Olga Baclanova who plays Duchess Josiana (and I have to wonder if Madonna took inspiration from her and Cesare Gravina as Ursus.
The Man Who Laughs is a thriller, a mystery, it’s disturbing, and surrealism lurks behind numerous cracks and crevices. While haunting, it’s very nature and storytelling has made an indelible mark on cinema forever.
The extras talk about Paul Leni’s impact on film-making and the genre, there’s also a great feature with horror-expert Kim Newman, which is really interesting. The Special Features also offer up two videos essays, one on the grotesque and putting that character at the centre of the pictures, and the other on Leni and the eventual production of Universal Pictures, and how they feel came to be. Both offer more insight into the development, the influence and intrigue that these films created and inspired, so worth investigating for those new to the genre, or just those who love it!