The Man Who Laughs (1928)

2020 #189
Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

The Man Who Laughs

Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

I was only Jokering

The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

Tale as old as time...

A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

I said it's NOT a horror movie!

It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

4 out of 5

The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), they give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero in that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Casablanca (1942)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #17

They had a date with fate in Casablanca.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 102 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG (1992)

Original Release: 7th December 1942 (Brazil)
US Release: 23rd January 1943
UK Release: December 1942 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD, 2006

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep)
Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Autumn Sonata)
Paul Henreid (Now, Voyager, Deception)
Claude Rains (The Invisible Man, Notorious)
Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Thief of Bagdad)

Director
Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce)

Screenwriters
Julius J. Epstein (Arsenic and Old Lace, Cross of Iron)
Philip G. Epstein (Arsenic and Old Lace, The Last Time I Saw Paris)
Howard Koch (The Letter, Letter from an Unknown Woman)

Based on
Everybody Comes to Rick’s, an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. (Despite the film’s popularity, a legal dispute between the playwrights and Warner Bros meant it wasn’t staged until 1991.)

The Story
Controlled by the German-subservient French government, Morocco in 1941 is a congregation point for German officials, collaborating French, and refugees attempting to get to neutral America. When letters of transit allowing that passage come into the possession of nightclub owner Rick Blaine at the same time as the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, walks into his joint with her husband, Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, Rick has some tough decisions to make — and quickly, with corrupt police captain Renault hunting for the letters and German Major Strasser gunning for Laszlo…

Our Hero
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, everybody comes to Rick’s. That’s because Rick is Humphrey Bogart. You’d go to a bar run by Humphrey Bogart, wouldn’t you?

Our Heroine
The most beautiful woman to ever visit Casablanca (a gross understatement), here’s looking at you, Ingrid Bergman. (Yes, I added this section pretty much just to say that.)

Our Villains
It’s set during World War 2 so, I mean, who do you think?

Best Supporting Character
Claude Rains was the Invisible Man, but here he’s Captain Louis Renault, a corrupt copper who — despite being fourth-billed in a film packed with memorable dialogue — still gets a good many of the best lines.

Memorable Quote
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” — Rick

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

The Most Famous Misquote in Movie History
“Play it again, Sam.” — Rick
(Ilsa says, “Play it once, Sam,” and, “Play it, Sam.” Rick says, “You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can take it, I can take it, so play it!”)

Memorable Scene
As Laszlo boards the plane out of Casablanca, Isla thinks she’s staying with Rick… until he convinces her to go. Standing in the doorway of an aircraft hanger, it’s probably the film’s most iconic scene — if you’ve not seen it, you’ve certainly seen it parodied.

Memorable Song
You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, As Time Goes By. Play it again, Sam!

Making of
Casey Robinson re-wrote the film’s romantic scenes and was offered a credit, but turned it down because he only took credit for screenplays he wrote entirely himself. Of course, with that decision he missed out on winning an Oscar.

Awards
3 Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Black-and-White Cinematography, Editing, Score)

What the Critics Said
“bear in mind that it goes heavy on the love theme. Although the title and Humphrey Bogart’s name convey the impression of high adventure rather than romance, there’s plenty of the latter for the femme trade. Adventure is there, too, but it’s more as exciting background to the Bogart-Bergman heart department. Bogart, incidentally, as a tender lover (in addition to being a cold-as-ice nitery operator) is a novel characterization” — Variety

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“the script’s greatest strength is not quotability. It’s character development. Rick, Ilsa, Renault and Laszlo are complex individuals, about whom we care, no matter their flaws. Sam (Dooley Wilson), an African American pianist, is layered by loyalty to Rick and emotional acuity, while Major Strasser, the antagonist, is not a comic book villain. Because he’s a Nazi, we do not like the Major, but director Michael Curtiz and his writers are smart enough not to make him stereotypically evil, instead opting to develop him as determined and efficient. Because all of the characters are so genuine, the filmmakers earn our emotional investment” — Josh, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

Casablanca is remembered now as much for its selection of ever-quotable lines as for anything else — you don’t have to have seen the film to know that if you go walking into all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world and someone’s looking at you, kid, then maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon you should round up all the usual suspects again, Sam, for the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or something. It’s much more than that, though: an engaging romantic drama, with enough overtones of noir to keep it snappy, set in perhaps a ’40s equivalent of the Wild West. It may be three-quarters of a century old next year, but it still merits playing again.

#18 will see… Bond begin.