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  • Writer's pictureSouth West Silents

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Masters of Cinema Release

South West Silents' very own Mark Fuller explores the new release of The Man Who Laughs (1928) by Euerka's The Masters of Cinema Series.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) is a film that has haunted me since childhood; 45 years ago I was introduced to it by Denis Gifford in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book that spent more time in my bedroom than in the Town Library that nominally owned it.

Within, the ghastly grin of Conrad Veidt and the blank mask of Mary Philbin shared a page with Lon Chaney's extraordinary shark-toothed 'vampire' from London After Midnight. But not much information; reading between the lines dear Denis was having to go by contemporary press hoopla; it doesn't seem as if he had the chance to see the film itself. Well, it took me another 25 years to do so.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo; the son of a rebel aristocrat is sold to the (fictional) Comprachicos, wanderers who survive by presenting freak shows; and if freaks are in short supply, they create them. So young Gwynplaine (The unsung Julius Molnar Jr) undergoes a crude surgery that extends his mouth into an awful, teeth-baring rictus grin. Taken in by a kind showman as a child, inevitably the adult Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) is condemned to survive by being a clown/freak in street theatricals, opposite the lovely blind girl Dea he had himself rescued years before (Mary Philbin). Here he attracts the attention of slumming Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) who is both repulsed and fascinated by him, and she gives him a dilemma; as truly, he is in love with Dea.....and yet the Duchess offers him an entree into the court life, that was his of right, as well as her body.

The plot is melodramatic, but you are sucked into the film through the exquisite design, by Charles D. Hall, who worked on many of the best films in silent-era Hollywood, the technical mastery of the director, German emigre and horror film expert Paul Leni, (Waxworks, The Cat And The Canary) and his cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, this being the highlight of his fifty year career behind the cameras.

The film employs exquisite use of shadow, and the chiarascuro lighting of the faces of both the grotesques and the beautiful that populate the film - Veidt's Gwynplaine being in the latter group - and the sets that conjure a very Germanic-Hollywood view of 17th Century England, partly because many are recycled from earlier Universal films set in medieval Europe, partly through the cinematic influence of Paul Leni; his mobile camerawork and swift editing making this as much a German film made in Hollywood as Murnau's Sunrise. Roger Ebert called this film "One of the final treasures of German Silent Expressionism" and I can't argue with that assessment.

Then there are the performances. Veidt is the heart and soul of the film; not truly a horror film, but a drama in which something horrific has been perpetrated, and in which the victim learns to overcome his disfigurement, find love, and gain agency over his life at last. There are monsters in this film; but Veidt's Gwynplaine is not one of them. In an extraordinary performance, you are never in doubt as to Gwynplaine's humanity; he may be tempted, but he is essentially decent. This is a performance feat carried primarily by just the top half of Veidt's face, as more often than not, that fixed grin deceives.

Mary Philbin has a difficult, even thankless role, as the blind, beautiful innocent Dea. If you have seen her in The Phantom Of The Opera opposite Lon Chaney, you will know that her range is limited; fortunately this role fits her like a glove. She is lovely, a bit bemused, her narrow range of expressions conveying her blindness. It's possible she may have been capable of more, but her career was very short.

Olga Baclanova is sensational as the sexually predatory Duchess; in her scenes with Veidt she gives off eroticism and desire in spadefuls, the candle to his moth. Her 20th Century Girl Power vibe is not harmed at all by the remarkable physical resemblance she has to Madonna, circa 1990. Her career, too, faded quickly after her iconic role as the femme fatale in Tod Browning's Freaks.

The character players are remarkable too. The kindly Ursus is played by wild-haired Hollywood stalwart Cesare Gravina, his face not so much wrinkled as canyoned, and he will break your heart. The courtly villains, led by Brandon Hurst's arachnoid, scheming jester Barkilphedro, are somewhere between Cruikshank cartoons and the drawings of George Grosz, vile, ugly and degenerate inside and out. Every crowd artist is similarly selected to convey the tough, brutal world that the tale is happening in. The best get luminous close-ups for a fleeting moment, before they return to the crowd and Central Casting.

On playing the disc, your first impression is how the picture quality has been transformed from the 2003 Kino DVD. That was a welcome release back in the day, but the image was dirty and a bit unstable; this is the result of a 4K master and a lot of work in the restoration and cleaning labs. The image is pin-sharp, very stable, with good contrast, with just the occasional hint that the source copy had suffered a little shrinkage in places, but only if you are looking for it.

Fortunately, we also get a choice of scores to accompany the film; the original Movietone score the film was screened with, in those theatres already wired for sound; historically interesting, it mostly works, but occasional familiar and anachronistic tunes, and busy mickey-mousing sound effects, pull you out of the film at times; better to go for the rather good modern orchestral score courtesey of the Berklee School of Music.

The Eureka disc is also blessed by a good selection of extra features; an interview with the British expert on horror and fantasy films Kim Newman, that covers the context in which the film sits, at the cusp of silent and sound eras, and at the beginning of the horror film genre; an analytical, thoughtful, sophisticated and stylish video essay by filmmakers, writers and Shadowplay bloggers David Cairns and Fiona Watson, which really gets under the skin of the film, and a straighter biography of the film and Paul Leni, by John Soister. As well as these, there are the most comprehensive Stills Galleries, a huge archive of photographs, articles, publicity materials, and sheet music associated with the film; you need to hit the Play button to go through each category. There is also a booklet with essays by Travis Crawford and Richard Combs that was not with the review copy.

This was an influential film; in a way I believe that its reputation has suffered because of it. Its success heralded the Universal Horror sequences that followed; indeed, Leni and Veidt were approached to make Dracula; yes, Veidt's make-up inspired The Joker in the Batman comics; there is a shot towards the climax that foreshadows Vertigo; but I feel that these are all distractions from a powerful film that should be appreciated in its own right. Hopefully this release will help that. It's a terrific package that the film deserves.

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