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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Man Who Laughs

“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” and “The Kid” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

By now it is legend among “Batman” fans that when the villainous Joker first appeared in 1940 as Batman’s arch-nemesis, “Batman” creator Bob Kane based the visual on the main character in the 1928 silent film “The Man Who Laughs.” One look at Gwynplaine, the man alluded to in the title so expertly portrayed by actor Conrad Veidt, and the connection is immediate. The similarities, however, are only skin deep. Whereas Kane’s Joker is maniacal and murderous, Veidt’s Gwynplaine is a sweet, tortured soul and a decent man.

“The Man Who Laughs,” based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo and directed by Paul Leni, starts off with Gwynplaine as a young child, portrayed by Julius Molnar. The year is 1690 and his father, also played by Veidt, is a Lord who refuses to kiss the ring of King James II (Sam DeGrasse). For this indiscretion the corrupt king and the wicked jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) condemn the Lord to death in one of the most infamous of all medieval torture devices, the Iron Maiden. Before executing him, the king informs the Lord that a band of gypsies took his son and performed surgery on him to give the child a permanent smile for the rest of his life. Left orphaned and on his own, young Gwynplaine finds his way to the shelter of philosopher Ursus (Cesare Gravina), bringing along with him a young baby who he rescues from her dead mother. Oh, and also, the baby is blind. This is all in the first ten minutes of the movie. Sounds about right for a story based on a novel from the same man who wrote “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Flash forward twenty years and Gwynplaine is a grown man, played by Veidt, and the young baby is the beautiful and blind Dea (Mary Philbin). Ursus has gone from being a philosopher to a playwright. He, Gwynplaine, Dea, and various other entertainers travel the English countryside going from town to town to put on shows. The star of all of the plays, and the main attraction gaining notoriety around the country, is Gwynplaine, who is known as The Laughing Man. The troupe also has a canine member, a wolf-dog named Homo. Yeah, I know—it is funny in a modern day context. But given the big part that this dog plays in the climax of the movie, you won’t be laughing at the end.

Gwynplaine rehearses his plays and takes his craft seriously. None of that matters, however, after the curtain opens and the audience gets a look at his face. As soon as they glimpse the permanent smile on his face, the laughter, mocking, and ridicule begin. Gwynplaine is treated more like a carnival sideshow than an actor. He controls himself while on stage—never an outburst, lash out, or angry word back to the audience—but it eats away at him on the inside. We know this through the indelible performance of Conrad Veidt, who in spite of the fact that one half of his face must remain frozen in a grotesque grimace, conveys every emotion necessary through his eyes.

Leni shows an expert level of shot composition in “The Man Who Laughs,” and his use of close ups on Veidt are particularly effective. When not on stage, Gwynplaine prefers to keep the lower half of his face covered, making what he does with his eyes even more important. It’s all there. Veidt’s performance in this movie is a Master’s Class in how a great actor can convey a range of emotion through just the eyes. It is very cinematic and very powerful. The only other actors I can name who acted with their eyes this effectively are Al Pacino and the late, great Paul Newman. Brando had his moments when he wasn’t too busy toying with directors. Everyone else should watch and learn.

But sadness isn’t the only emotion conveyed so well by Veidt. He’s in love with Dea, and she in turn is in love with him, even though she’s never seen him. He wants to marry her, but feels bad, as though he is taking advantage of her. After all, if she could see how he looks, would she still want to marry him? Into the audience one day comes the frivolous and flighty Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova). She looks on in seriousness as the rabble around her mock Gwynplaine in disdain. This gives him hope. If a woman like the beautiful duchess can look at him without flinching or making fun, then perhaps a beautiful woman like Dea would also feel the same way. This would then alleviate his guilty feelings and allow him to marry Dea. I love this characteristic of Gwynplaine. The last thing he wants to do is be an opportunist and take advantage of a woman’s disability. He wants to be sure that she could really love him if she had all of her faculties. Gwynplaine has got to be one of the most noble, honorable, and decent men to ever be put on the silver screen.

The build up to the end of “The Man Who Laughs” picks up the pace, and we get the obligatory mob with torches scenes. These were more common in movies of the late 1920s through the 1930s than in any other time. Add some pitch forks and the scenes could be straight out of a Universal monster movie. I think these scenes are the equivalent to the 1980s and 90s “walk away from an explosion in slow motion” scenes. You know the ones I mean. And that’s fine. These types of scenes are part of what defines an era. Plus it doesn’t matter what era a movie is made, a great movie is a great movie that stands the test of time and holds up over the ensuing decades. Given that it is 2019 and I am writing about a movie from 1928, I’d say “The Man Who Laughs” is a great movie. Buy it.

More New Releases: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” Terry Gilliam movie about an advertising executive who jumps back and forth in time between 21st century London and 17th century La Mancha, where Don Quixote mistakes him for Sancho Panza, starring Adam Driver, Olga Kurylenko, Stellan Skarsgård, and Jonathan Pryce; and “The Kid,” about a young boy who witnesses Billy the Kid's encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett, directed by Vincent D'Onofrio and starring D'Onofrio as well as Ethan Hawke, Dane DeHaan Chris Pratt, Adam Baldwin, and Keith Jardine.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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