Directed by Paul Leni, The Man Who Laughs is a masterfully moody, occasionally tragic, piece of melodrama, with a few spices of horror thrown in.
The historical nature of the plot did the movie well, as the set pieces and costumes all looked rather authentic. The brooding nature of the story was well-done too, helped by the score, which, while not perfect, felt as though it could have been the score when first this movie came out, over ninety years ago.
It’s the actors who should get the most accolades, though; Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, and George Siegmann all make this movie a film well worth watching.
Veidt, by this point, may need no introduction. He was in a plethora of silent horror classics, including Furcht (or Fear, from 1917), Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales, 1919), Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924), Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926), and The Last Performance (from 1929). That’s not even counting the unfortunately-lost Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus, 1920), which was an unauthorized version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (much like Nosferatu was to Dracula).
Conrad Veidt got around, and it’s clear, from this movie, to see how. He possessed an extraordinarily emotional range, and his character, the tragic figure of Gwynplaine, was very well-acted. Throughout the film, Veidt’s performance is truly a treat to watch.
Philbin wasn’t in all that many films, but she did co-star in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney, and again, with Veidt, in the 1929 The Last Performance. Here, she plays a beautiful blind woman, named Dea, who is deeply in love with Gwynplaine, despite never having seen his disfigured face. Playing her role convincingly, Philbin stood out strong.
Brandon Hurst, who had small roles in various early horror flicks (such as 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and 1932’s White Zombie) gets credit for playing one of the slimiest silent characters with his portrayal of Barkilphedro. Sinister, yet suave, Hurst did well in showing the sleaziness of his character throughout the whole of the film, and from his very first scene, you can’t help but hold Barkilphedro in abhorrence.
Gravina isn’t much known outside of this movie. He had a few uncredited roles in classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera (1923 and 1925), and mainly dabbled in early Italian shorts. Here, he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen-time, but during one scene in particular, his performance broke my heart. Such sad, moving scenes generally aren’t what I’d expect from silent films, but that one just killed me.
Siegmann, who I spoke about also in my review for The Cat and the Canary, isn’t that big a name insofar as horror is concerned, though he did appear in the 1909 short The Sealed Room and 1914’s The Avenging Conscience. Here, he played Dr. Hardquanonne, a rather sadistic individual who disfigured Gwynplaine. I wish that he got more screen-time than he did, because like Hurst, he was a dark force to be reckoned with, but still, this being his final role before his early death, Siegmann did quite well.
The cast of this movie is amazing, and the film, as a whole, is an atmospheric, moody piece of art. While it would be unfair to call it a horror film in the purest definition, The Man Who Laughs is a dark classic, and while the ending is not nearly as tragic as one might expect, there are plenty of sad scenes throughout. I didn’t really appreciate this when I first saw it, and even now, it makes a better drama film than a horror film, without a doubt, but even so, this Leni classic is one that any movie fan should look out for.