The Man Who Laughs is a silent melodrama tinged with horror. The opening act is filled with some of the most disturbing imagery of the silent era, as we see iron maidens, hanging bodies, and ships in the fog, all presented in an abstract way. A boy is deliberately disfigured. The terror of this prologue is the peak of the film and in a sense it never tops it.
The rest of the film is still very solid however. The story follows a freakish man with a permanent smile, who is set to gain a large inheritance, if only he knew about his lineage. It could be construed as a film about revenge, but the titular character is only after affection and acceptance. In fact, the real villain in some regards is a sexually aggressive femme fatale like figure, whose presence gives the film a more edgy tone.
Director Paul Leni was an established talent of the German expressionist era. In Hollywood he continued to use those stylings. The Man Who Laughs presents a gothic world with images designed to be evocative, not realistic. The whole piece moves in an operatic sense and the visuals really help this film stand the test of time.
In the lead role is Conrad Veidt, a German actor who also started his career in expressionist cinema. His best-known film during this period is the iconic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt’s wife was Jewish so after the Nazis’ rise to power he fled to Hollywood and would appear in classics such as The Thief of Bagdad and Casablanca. In The Man Who Laughs, he delivers an influential performance rooted in the physical. The imagery of a man who cannot stop smiling has left a huge legacy in popular culture, most notably in the various versions of the Batman villain Joker, who is often drawn and portrayed in a manner that strikes a resemblance to Veidt here. However the character in this film is not a villain, but a kind-hearted hero beset with misfortune. It is a testament to the imagery of The Man Who Laughs that its pictures transcend the simple narrative of the film and evoke different, complex meanings.
Coming in 1928, sound was just coming into cinema. So here we get a film with sound effects. However the film is still a silent classic, because it takes the best traits of silent cinema even as it enters a new world. It is a film of rich, theatrical emotion, filled with tears and love blind to the struggles of the world. All of which ensures that The Man Who Laughs is ultimately a gothic, expressionist classic and a fantastic film in almost every way.
The disc from Eureka under their much-beloved Masters of Cinema line includes a new interview with Kim Newman, new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, a featurette on the film’s production and a stills gallery. The booklet includes essays by Travis Crawford and Richard Combs.