AFED #122: The Man Who Laughs (US, 1928); Dir. Paul Leni

Given the high regard in which it's held I perhaps had unfair expectations of The Man Who Laughs. Based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, like his more celebrated Notre-Dame de Paris it's a historical melodrama with gothic overtones. In the hands of director Paul Leni it becomes an atmospheric romance that sanitises the German Expressionist aesthetic.

Although it's actually one of the earliest Universal pictures to incorporate sound elements it has the opulent production standards typical of silent films during this period, with some elaborate sets depicting 18th century London and the court of Queen Anne. But at nearly two hours the story seems stretched to the point of tedium and the characters lack the depth or complexity to make them engaging.

Yet Conrad Veidt, an actor who comfortably ranks amongst my all time favourites, delivers a sensitive performance as Gwynplaine, the unfortunate hero who is disfigured as a child in an act of revenge against his nobleman father. At least, as sensitive as it's possible to be when your face is locked in a permanent grin. His distinctive visage famously inspired Jerry Robinson in his creation of Batman's arch nemesis The Joker, but one suspects Christopher Nolan (earning his second namecheck in two days) revisited this film before his own take on the character in The Dark Knight.

I was expecting a darker and altogether more twisted tale than delivered here but perhaps I should have read up beforehand.


  1. Could not agree more Richard. It's not popular to dislike such a classic film but for me it's all pomp and ceremony and the characters just get washed away.

  2. I do wonder if the conservative restraints of Hollywood worked against it and imagine if Leni and Weidt had teamed up on this in Weimar Germany the results might have been decidedly more twisted. Notably the original ending of Hugo's novel - in which Gwynplaine commits suicide after his love dies at sea - was omitted from this version.


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