The Man Who Laughs (1928)

There's nothing funny about The Man Who Laughs. Paul Leni's film for Universal adapts Victor Hugo's novel of 1869 - set in England, 1690 - to tell the story of Gwynplaine, the innocent young son of an enemy to King James II, who is brutally disfigured by order of the monarch, his face permanently stricken into a hideous grin so that he may "laugh forever at his fool of a father", lately cast into the iron maiden. We pick up Gwynplaine's story in adulthood, where the outcast (Conrad Veidt) earns a living in a traveling fair run by the kindly mountebank Ursus (Cesare Gravina) and pines for his blind co-star Dea (Mary Philbin). The growing fame of "the man who laughs" soon reaches the court of Queen Anne, where the corrupt duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) pursues him romantically on a whim, encouraged by cruel court jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst). The latter learns of Gwynplaine's true heritage and claims to land and title. Gwynplaine is hurried to the House of Lords to be ennobled so that he may marry Josiana and surrender his lineage, but he refuses the honour and escapes, fleeing England with the banished Ursus and his beloved Dea.

Producer Carl Laemmle followed the success of his Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney by again trawling through the French literary canon in search of a sympathetic monster. This time Chaney was unavailable, so Laemmle exploited his connections with the German film industry to land Conrad Veidt, star of expressionist classics The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920), The Hands Of Orlac (1924) and Waxworks (1924), as well as his director on that last film, Paul Leni. The latter has opportunities to impress in The Man Who Laughs and seizes them, notably incorporating a clever first-person sequence on a ferris wheel to convey the giddy sense of fun enjoyed by the revelers at Southwalk Fair. However, it's inevitably Veidt's extraordinary Gwynplaine that steals the show. The great actor manages to inspire our pity for this grotesque creation with little more than a nervous wrinkled brow, an impressive feat. His frantic efforts to keep his "smile" concealed at all times behind scarf or clamped hands is an especially touching and well observed detail. The character famously inspired Batman creator Bob Kane to conceive the Joker and it's not hard to see why: the above still is once seen, never forgotten. Elsewhere, Olga Baclanova is memorable bathing nude as the degenerate Josiana, a character whose motivations she would effectively reprise in Tod Browning's similarly creepy Freaks (1932). Mary Philbin, a protégé of Erich von Stroheim returning from Phantom, is again very moving and Hurst is deliciously malevolent as Barkilphedro.


La Notte (1961)

Sharing a theme with Rossellini's Journey To Italy (1953) and a milieu with Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), La Notte is a deceptively simple tale of the collapse of a loveless marriage from Michelangelo Antonioni. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau star as listless author Giovanni Pontano and his frustrated wife Lidia, the couple introduced visiting Giovanni's dying editor Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) in hospital. They then attend a book launch, take an afternoon nap and wander the shabby backstreets of Milan respectively before reuniting to attend a tedious all-night garden party, each silently ruing the terminus they've reached and considering extramarital affairs: Giovanni with Valentina (Monica Vitti), the precocious daughter of an industrialist who aggressively pursues the writer with the offer of an executive post with his firm, Lidia with a stranger she meets in a rainstorm.

Giovanni, a probable influence on the similarly situated though older Jep Gambardella in last year's The Great Beauty ("I no longer have inspirations, only memories", he sighs), appears the more anxious of the two to maintain appearances, while Lidia seems more disposed to face up to the reality of their having drifted apart, whether irreconcilably or not. Quite what has caused the rift between them is never explicitly stated, although the readiness with which Giovanni allows himself to be enticed into the room of a nymphomaniac patient while visiting Tommaso suggests a penchant for philandering on his part that is later confirmed by his interest in Valentina, however half-hearted that project proves to be. Giovanni and Lidia are certainly bored by the upper middle class circles in which they move and both are embarrassed by the public rituals they encounter - a gangland fist fight, a gathering of children firing rockets into the sky, a weeping toddler and a striptease act all uncomfortably echoing aspects of their crumbling relationship in abstract ways. The run-down concrete wastelands Lidia passes through on her aimless wander, lit in blinding white sunshine and faint shadow, also provides a comment on the ruination of their love. It's no surprise to learn that this is one of Don Draper's favourite films in Mad Men (2007-), the demise of the advertising executive's marriage to Stepford wife Betty providing a close parallel with Antonioni's scenario.

The great auteur largely leaves us to decipher the inner workings of his protagonists from their responses to the people and situations they involve themselves with and the layers of naturalistic detail with which he loads ever frame ensures that La Notte contains enough ambiguity and mystery to merit repeated viewings. "You've completely exhausted me, the two of you", cries Valentina as the party winds down, just prior to Giovanni and Lidia's apparent reconciliation. Quite. Incidentally, François Truffaut disliked Antonioni's use of Jeanne Moreau, soon to star in the Frenchman's own Jules Et Jim (1962), and complained that, "Antonioni had exploited the 'Bette Davis' side of Jeanne Moreau - the sullen face; she never laughed". Even at her most morose, Moreau is never far from lovely and gives a superbly nuanced performance, her horror of aging powerfully evoked.


Freaks (1932)

Banned in Britain for 30 years, Tod Browning's Freaks remains notorious and I've long shied away from seeing it despite being well aware of the film's important place within cult cinema history. However, having finally mustered the courage to sit through it, I'm pleased to report back that I found Freaks to be a touching and heartfelt plea for sympathy and understanding and by no means the grotesque pre-Code exploitation shlocker I'd been led to expect.

The film's story concerns Hans (Harry Earles), a German midget appearing in a travelling circus, who falls in love with "peacock of the air" Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a ravishing but cruel trapeze artist. The latter initially mocks the diminutive Hans before changing her tune when she learns that he has inherited a small fortune, plotting with her strongman boyfriend Hercules (Henry Victor) to marry Hans, murder him and then elope with the cash. Co-star Frieda (Daisy Earles) smells a rat and warns Hans against the wedding though he ignores her counsel. When Hans is duly taken ill with ptomaine poisoning, his fellow "freaks" turn on Cleopatra and exact a terrible revenge.

Freaks was a passion project for Browning, the director of Universal's seminal Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, who had run away from a comfortable home in Kentucky at 16 to join the circus. Working for various sideshows from then on, Browning was a barker for the "Wild Man of Borneo", performed a live burial act and even appeared as a clown for the Ringling Brothers. He would later draw on his big top experiences when he persuaded MGM's star producer Irving Thalberg to option the rights to Clarence Robbins' 1923 short story 'Spurs', which had recently appeared in Munsey's Magazine. Browning wanted to draw attention to the plight of dwarves, pinheads, bearded ladies and conjoined twins appearing in carnivals and show the American public that they were people too and as deserving of dignity and respect as everyone else, casting real "freak show" performers in his film version to make the point. Thalberg ignored the advice of his peers in backing the project and came to regret the decision when Freaks was released and met with a horrified reaction, one woman claiming to have suffered a miscarriage brought on by the trauma of watching it. Browning would only complete four more films thereafter before vacating his director's chair altogether in 1939 and entering the real estate game, a sad decline for a major horror talent.

The real trouble with Freaks is that Browning tries to have his cake and eat it. The filmmaker (above, centre) implores us to see the likes of Prince Randian "the Living Torso" and Koo Koo the Bird Girl for what they are - human beings born with unusually extreme disabilities, innocents entirely undeserving of our revulsion - but in so doing only succeeds in again turning them into a sensational spectacle for punters to gawk at. Although Browning successfully conveys the humanity of these poor devils, capturing their perfectly natural emotional responses to interactions with their able-bodied colleagues on the fairground (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams lead by example), they are still curiosities being exhibited to draw a crowd, this time moving picture-goers instead of Saturday night revelers. This problem is particularly obvious at the climax when they collectively pursue Cleopatra bearing switchblades, a frightening occurrence that restores them to the status of queasy outsider "Other". Their famous holler of, "One of us, one of us! Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! We accept her, we accept her!", is as tribal and primal as that of the manimals in the same year's The Island Of Lost Souls, suggesting that these performers are something altogether more sinister than the makeshift, mutually supportive family we have previously been presented with. Despite this inconsistency, Browning's intentions were unquestionably noble and Frieda's unrequited love for Hans is beautifully played by Daisy and Harry Earles, even if they were siblings in real-life.