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Friday, June 6, 2008

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

Universal hoped to top their big-budget Lon Chaney vehicles (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME/’23 and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’25) with this late silent, but they couldn’t have known what an artistic triumph they had stumbled into. Paul Leni, a master of stylized Gothic atmosphere out of the German UFA Studio, died not long after making this almost unbearably dark tale of a mutilated child who grows up to be a clown only to discover he is heir to a British title, estate & fortune. Will he survive his horrible good luck? This miraculous restoration shows Leni as a helmer who had everything: story sense, mastery of camera movement, pace & editing, great rapport over a motley group of actors working in varying styles, and an art director’s appreciation for sets & atmosphere. (He was one more brilliant protege of the legendary German stage director Max Reinhardt.) Conrad Veidt is unforgettable as the grotesque hero and you’ll be glad that Leni softens the typically fatalistic Victor Hugo ending. The KINO DVD comes with a fine ‘Making Of’ documentary, but I wish there was a modern soundtrack in addition to the antique original synch-sound discs. Sure, they're 'authentic,' but they make the film seem undeservedly quaint.

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