The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Director: Paul Leni

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the primary inspirations for Batman’s main foe, the Joker, was the titular character of the 1928 silent epic The Man Who Laughs. Set in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a man whose face was mutilated as a child to make it appear like he’s always showing a toothy grin named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) becomes a carnival freak and gets tangled up in royal intrigue at the highest level. Considered one of the best movies of the silent era, this film largely lives up to its acclaim.

One of the first things you should know about this picture is that it’s not really a horror flick, as its reputation would suggest. There’s some horror-style imagery towards the beginning, but, for the most part, this is a gothic-style melodrama with heavy romance elements. Believe it or not, there is also some action-adventure-type stuff near the end of the runtime. Even if it’s not truly a horror film, the movie features a sea of grotesque faces to gander at, more than just the one on Gwynplaine.

It’s interesting to note that the title role was initially going to go to Lon Chaney, before it was decided that Conrad Veidt should get it. Here, Veidt gives one of the very best performances of the silent era. He has a permanent smile etched on his face, but he is a tormented man, as can be seen in his pathos-ridden eyes. He’s clearly the hero of the story, even if he inspired the villainous Joker. The rest of the characters in the feature are generally pretty well-defined.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes in The Man Who Laughs that border on slow, but this is a relatively late silent movie, so things mostly move along satisfactorily. It has appealing visuals and the plot, which some may find soapy, keeps things together. It’s an American production, but it wouldn’t feel out of place among the German Expressionist pictures of the time period. Silent film lovers will almost certainly find enough here for me to recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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