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.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

2016 #174
Rick Morales | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman: Return of the Caped CrusadersHoly nostalgia hit, Batman! This animated movie reunites the surviving stars of the enduringly popular ’60s Batman TV series (and spin-off movie) for a new adventure in the style of their classic ones — that is to say it’s funny and colourful, a world away from the Dark Knight version of Batman we’re so accustomed to these days.

In some respects, that’s all you need to know in terms of a critical review of this film. If you’ve never seen the ’60s originals, it’s not really ‘for’ you. I mean, it’s perfectly accessible, I think, but it’s loaded with winks and nods to its inspiration. I definitely missed some of those because I haven’t watched the series for a while (I really need to get stuck into the Blu-ray set they released a couple of years back), but, from what I can remember, it captures their tone well. That is to say: on the surface it’s pulp superhero derring-do, but underneath it’s laced with a knowing wit and an awareness of its own glorious ridiculousness. The animated medium is used to push beyond what would’ve been possible in live-action TV 50 years ago, but I won’t go into detail so as not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet (though it screened in cinemas last month and has been out on disc on both sides of the Atlantic for a bit now).

The voice cast is headlined by — of course — Adam West as Batman, along with Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. West is nearly 90 now and you can hear that in his voice, but he’s still got it. You soon forget the old-age huskiness and just revel in his consummate skill at delivering his Batman just so; that earnest delivery of humorous material that led some people to miss for decades that the series was actually, Vile villainous verminfundamentally, a comedy. Conversely, Ward still sounds pretty spry, and is gifted plenty of those “Holy [insert something here], Batman!” catchphrases that never cease to be fun. Unfortunately, Newmar also sounds her age, but doesn’t seem to quite have the liveliness that West retains. In the behind-the-scenes featurettes she seems a delightfully kooky old bird (at the recording she’s wearing cat ears, for one thing), so it’s hard to resent her, but the portrayal of Catwoman as slinky and sexy feels a little… odd. On the bright side, it means you don’t get the uncomfortableness of West flirting with a much younger actress, even in animated form.

The rest of the cast has to be rounded out by replacements by necessity. The most famous foes from that era of the Bat — namely, the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin — are all in on the action, and voice actors Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, and William Salyers do a bang-up job recreating their recognisable tics. However, I think the biggest respect is due to writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker. They’ve managed to pen something that feels like a tribute without being set in aspic; that’s genuinely fresh and funny in its own right, while also evoking the beloved classic that inspired it, including plenty of in-jokes and nods at other screen iterations of Batman. I also particularly enjoyed the alliteration-addled dialogue, because I do love a bit (or a lot) of alliteration. I’m a man of simple pleasures sometimes.

Batty Batman's back!On the whole, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a resounding success. It’s a fun return to a beloved incarnation of arguably the most popular superhero; a version who’d been somewhat left out in the cold for a couple of decades by a world that grew up a bit too much, but is now being re-embraced and held in deserved esteem. And, even better, there’s already a follow-up in the works. Holy must-see sequel, Batman!

4 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

2016 #129
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: The Killing JokeAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the seminal works of superhero comic books’ move into seriousness in the ’80s, sitting just behind the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One in terms of significance. It’s also seen by many as the definitive story about Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, and has influenced the live-action interpretations of both Jack Nicholson & Tim Burton and Heath Ledger & Christopher Nolan. It is not without controversy, however, thanks in large part to its treatment of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl; and Moore has since semi-disowned it, saying it has no intrinsic value because it has nothing to say about real human beings, only commenting on the comic-book-y relationship between Batman and the Joker.

Now, it finally makes its way to our screens in animated form. What took so long? Well, it’s dark, and to do it justice the makers needed the potential to make it R-rated. Given permission to do so by Warner, they’ve done just that. So here we have a very faithful adaptation of the graphic novel… but it’s a bit short, so there’s a 28-minute prologue stuck on the front. Designed to ameliorate some of the issues people have with the original book, it’s actually only made things worse, containing brand-new controversial elements all of its own. Oh dear.

In this new segment, Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Batman (Kevin Conroy) find themselves on the trail of Paris Franz (say it aloud… or don’t), a young upstart who wants to take control of his uncle’s organised crime operation. Once that business is dealt with, we get to the familiar meat of the story, where the Joker (Mark Hamill) decides to prove a point — in a violent and twisted fashion, naturally.

To really discuss where this adaptation of The Killing Joke goes awry, I’m going to have to stop being coy about spoiling a 28-year-old comic book that had lasting ramifications for Barbara Gordon’s place in the DC universe. Also, spoilers for this new film, too. You have been warned.

So, for those not in the know or who would like a recap, the Joker’s plan is to prove we’re all just one bad day away from going insane like him. The target of his experiment is Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), and he begins by shooting his daughter Barbara in the spine, paralysing her, then taking photos of her naked to torment the Commissioner with later. (The actual photo-taking isn’t depicted in the comic or this film, but the images are hinted at later on.) This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least Barbara’s lack of presence in the story as anything more than a pawn to torture her father.

The film’s solution is to begin with a standalone Batgirl adventure. Not an inherently bad idea — it could make her a more rounded character; someone we care about for herself, not just a minor victim in some other game. However, screenwriter Brian Azzarello (and, presumably, director Sam Liu and executive producer Bruce Timm) have tried to do this by making her horny for Batman, and have that infatuation actually consummated in an al fresco rooftop sex scene (not graphically shown, but the film is unequivocal about what happened). To say the least, this doesn’t seem like the best way to go about making her an independent, rounded human being — it comes off like fan service. No, worse: fan fiction. A scene earlier on where she explains her Bat-infatuation to her gay best friend is presumably meant to suggest a genuine motivation for the eventual sexy times, but it all comes across as a great big excuse.

To top it off, it in no way informs the adaptation of The Killing Joke that follows. It makes nods towards some of the thematic concerns of the main story, but, structurally, it’s not part of the same film at all — there’s a fade to black & fade back in that really signals the end of one production and the start of a new one; the end of an opening short film and the start of the feature presentation. Only the ‘feature’ is far too short (44 minutes before credits), so that ‘short’ is clearly there to bulk up the running time.

The titular adaptation that follows is arguably faithful to a fault. If you’re seeking to make it feature-length, would it not have been better to expand the story out and examine some of its points more fully, even if the points you illuminated were about plot logic rather than themes — the original comic is very short and arguably a little rushed in places, so I think there’s definite room for expansion. In fact, while it might make sense to expand the role of Barbara Gordon for reasons of taste and social mores that have (not wrongly) since been projected onto the comic, from a purely narrative point of view the character who needs expanding is Commissioner Gordon. In the comics he’s a regular cast member, so it can afford to take as read his status as an “ordinary man” — or perhaps even a paragon of virtue, which brings its own problems to the story. But while he is a familiar figure in the Batman mythology, and so by extension to anyone who’s likely to watch this film, it’s also a standalone movie, not part of a series, and so it would be beneficial to establish his character somewhat before the Joker’s plan for him gets underway.

Heck, the film’s own special features even feature a psychologist talking about how it’s Jim Gordon’s story! While the Joker and Batman are the same characters at the beginning and the end, it’s Gordon who goes through a terrible ordeal and then has a choice to make. Yet in spite of that he’s treated as the fourth lead, at best, with the Joker and Batman taking precedence in the main adaptation and Barbara gaining masses of focus thanks to her half-hour preamble. It’s probably the twin desires to put the graphic novel on screen as-is and to in some way justify Barbara Gordon’s role in it that have led to this point. A less literal adaptation — one prepared to expand and elucidate the story, rather than just tack on an extra part at the start — could have found room to deepen both the Gordons.

Still, I suppose the literal faithfulness of the story adaptation will please purists. And reuniting the key voice acting cast from Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the all-time definitive screen interpretations of Batman and the Joker, is always fan-pleasing. Hamill, in particular, is fantastic, even when having to deliver Alan Moore’s typically verbose dialogue. However, one of the reasons the graphic novel is so beloved is Brian Bolland’s detailed, realistic, dynamic artwork. His draftsmanship transcends the actual narrative of Moore’s writing so that, however distasteful the tale being told, it looks incredible. Naturally, this animated adaptation loses that entirely, employing the standard “Saturday morning cartoon +” aesthetic of these DC direct-to-video movies. There are sound budgetary reasons for that, but it means the focus falls even more squarely on the narrative rather than the images. (It’s somewhat ironic, then, that (as ever) Alan Moore doesn’t receive an onscreen credit while Bolland does.) There are a handful of effective visuals here (the Joker’s gleeful face as he turns on the amusement park, its lights twinkling in his eyes), but they’re the exception to work which is adequate — good for what it is, even — but unremarkable.

For such a long-awaited adaptation, it’s difficult to conclude The Killing Joke is anything other than a disappointment. It didn’t have to be that way: I thought Warner made a good hash of adapting Year One, and an even better one of The Dark Knight Returns. While this adaptation does allow some of the book’s inherent quality to carry through, The Killing Joke was always going to be more problematic due to its content, and the filmmakers’ clumsy attempts to fix that have only made it worse. Shame.

3 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.