Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review #168: The Man Who Laughs
1928/DVD 2003
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Olga Baclanova, Mary Philbin

In so many ways Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is aggressively a film of our time. It’s not just that Heath Ledger’s Joker – every accolade is true – snatches us joltingly awake. No, it’s right from the opening scene, shot from a plane heading straight for the monumental, looming face of a sky-scraper. And then – just when part of your mind’s bracing for the crash – the first, establishing image of reversal occurs as, instead, the sky-scraper’s side explodes from within.

Like the resurgence of zombie movies since the Twins Towers, Nolan’s Batman films argue that barbarians-at-the-gates is an incomplete explanation, that racial scape-goating and urban decay, corruption and violence as much signify rottenness within – and that the greatest disintegration occurs when we abandon our best selves to turn on one another. Even before the Twin Towers, David Fincher’s Seven (1995) depicted a serial killer who envisioned his final masterpiece as provoking a decent, rookie cop, overwhelmed by rage and grief, to execute him.

So when the Joker baits the Gotham mob to “kill the Batman,” you suspect that’s only a first draft. Joker will really come into his own in challenging Batman’s adherence to his own code of conduct. Gary Oldman’s pragmatic Lt. Gordon first voices what’s at stake in this struggle – “Then the Joker will win!” – clearly echoing Rudy Giuliani’s “the terrorists will win” (if they alter our way of life).

The Dark Knight plays in tantalizing ways with Joker’s taunt that he and Batman are the same – both “freaks,” both outside the circle of community, both somehow mutilated, reverse sides of one coin. This reverberates in crusading D.A. Harvey Dent’s accidental mutilation and his trick coin tosses – after all, luck contains chaos at its core.

A particularly elegant reversal occurs through the mobster Gamble (Michael Jai White) when two booby-trapped ferries idle off Gotham’s shore, hostage to the Joker’s maniac threat to blow up both if the passengers on one don’t detonate the other by midnight. One boat also carries the mob bosses, now in shackles and orange jump-suits. Increasingly desperate, passengers on each ferry debate killing others to save themselves. Apparently living up to his fearsome image, Gamble tells the jumpy guy with the detonator, in a viciously silky growl, “You’re not up to taking a life. Give it to me. I’ll do what you should’ve done hours ago.”

Gamble’s haphazard scars signify a willfully violent life, but until now – when he tosses that detonator into the river through an open porthole – the film’s heavy shadows and fast action have obscured the intentional spiral scar wrapping his throat. Gamble’s scarification also mirrors the Joker’s hacked-open and basted-back-together cheeks. Whether redemptive or calculating, is any motive unambiguous?

So The Dark Knight is a superb in capturing our day, but its sophistication and resonance surely arise because our culture has been working on this story for a while. Clearly Nolan – who has his Rachel (Maggie Gyllelhaal) talk at cocktail parties about barbarians at the gates of Rome – knows this.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original Batman comics in 1940 spawned legions of offspring in print and on-screen, with the Joker by turns satiric, campy and menacing. In 1928 Universal Studios – following the enormous success of deformity-as-classic-horror with Lon Chaney, Sr. in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) – had released The Man Who Laughs, directed by the German Paul Leni and starring his countryman Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, wandering son of a deposed 17th century British nobleman mutilated by gypsies – cast as the mobsters of their day – so that his face is frozen eternally in a garish grin. A traveling player, Gwynplaine’s profession and its trappings provide the opportunity to display the intertwined faces of comedy and tragedy. An outcast, tragic figure, Gwynplaine is a far cry from Batman’s nemesis, yet Bob Kane acknowledged the film inspired his original Joker. Nolan’s film also features a number of still-recognizable common images and story elements in the dangerous escape by boat, the ridicule of “freaks,” orderly society’s collapse and merging with “ruffians,” and vicious guard dogs – in Victorian melodrama, surely the “hounds of hell,” since Victor Hugo wrote the original tale in 1869, incidentally while exiled for his own political novels.

The Man Who Laughs released several years before Tod Browning’s more extreme Freaks (which also cast Olga Baclanova), but is arguably as important a template for horror film as social commentary. Restored and released on DVD in 2003, The Man Who Laughs has screened theatrically since too, for example, anticipating the premiere of The Dark Knight, earlier this month at the San Francisco Silent Film festival. Enjoy them together.

This review appeared in the 7/24/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY and older films of enduring worth. The Man Who Laughs is available in both DVD and VHS formats, at Netflix, and on-line.