Home Video Hovel: The Man Who Laughs, by David Bax
Before even ten minutes have passed in Paul Leni’s towering landmark 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, we’ve seen a man mockingly informed that his son’s face has been intentionally disfigured; then, while still in the throes of torment, that man is killed in an iron maiden; then the disfigured boy is seen abandoned, barefoot, in the snow where he soon comes upon a grove of gallows with rotting corpses swinging from them in the moonlight; finally, beneath one of these hanged men, he finds a woman who has frozen to death while clutching her infant, who has gone blind but miraculously still clings to life. In other words, this movie is goddamn evil. This parade of macabre sadism is a hint at how deep the lowest of humanity can go. Which makes it all the more stunning when, by the film’s end, Leni has swept you up in the kind of loving, empathetic human melodrama of which the best classic films are made.
We next see that boy, mutilated so that he appears always to be grinning, grown up, played by Conrad Veidt and working as a clown performing under the name Gwynplaine. He travels with an ensemble of players and jesters, including the blind child, now grown into a young woman named Dea (Mary Philbin). Gwynplaine and Dea are on the verge of declaring their love for one another when they have the misfortune to perform near Westminster Abbey and Gwynplaine becomes an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game of palace intrigue.
Leni’s mastery of framing, depth, lighting and blocking are rivaled only by Veidt’s performance, a thing of flawless beauty. With prosthetics forcing his face into a permanently ghoulish visage, he’s left with only his eyes to emote. When not onstage, though, Gwynplaine often covers up his mouth, which both signals his sense of shame and forces us to look to his pupils for evidence of sadness or elation.
The Man Who Laughs does not shy away from Gwynplaine’s pain, either physical or emotional. But it also finds time for humor (Josephine Crowell’s Queen Anne is nearly as eccentric a figure as Olivia Colman’s in The Favourite), pathos (the attempts on the part of the other clowns to cheer up Dea when they think Gwynplaine lost are heartbreaking) and even action (there’s a shot of a dog attacking a villain that may not have seen its equal until John Wick 3). It’s truly the whole package.
Rounding out that package is the immaculate restoration and transfer. Using a 35mm fine grain as the source, Universal both scanned and restored The Man Who Laughs at 4K. The results are undeniably impressive. Clear, sharp, textured and stable, it looks how you would imagine it was meant to nearly a century ago. The new score, performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, is terrific.
Special features include a visual essay about Leni by historian John Soister; the original 1928 music track; an essay on the film by historian Kevin Brownlow; and an essay on the new score by composer Sonia Coronado.