A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The old man is proud beyond all reason of his position as a hotel doorman, and even prouder of his uniform, with its gold braids and brass buttons, its wide shoulders, military lapels and comic opera cuffs. Positioned in front of the busy revolving door, he greets the rich and famous and is the embodiment of the great hotel's traditions--until, in old age, he is crushed by being demoted to the humiliating position of washroom attendant.
F.W. Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (1924) tells this story in one of the most famous of silent films, and one of the most truly silent, because it does not even use printed intertitles. Silent directors were proud of their ability to tell a story through pantomime and the language of the camera, but no one before Murnau had ever entirely done away with all written words on the screen (except for one sardonic comment we'll get to later). He tells his story through shots, angles, moves, facial expressions and easily read visual cues.
The film would be famous just for its lack of titles, and for its lead performance by Emil Jannings, which is so effective that both Jannings and Murnau were offered Hollywood contracts and moved to America at the dawn of sound. But "The Last Laugh" is remarkable also for its moving camera. It is often described as the first film to make great use of a moving point of view. It isn't, really; the silent historian Kevin Brownlow cites "The Second-in-Command," made 10 years earlier. But it is certainly the film that made the most spectacular early use of movement, with shots that track down an elevator and out through a hotel lobby, or seemingly move through the plate-glass window of a hotel manager's office (influencing the famous shot in "Citizen Kane" that swoops down through the skylight of a nightclub).
Murnau's technical mastery makes all of his films exciting to see. In the vampire movie "Nosferatu," in the fiendish visions of "Faust," in the imaginary city of "Sunrise," he created phantasmagoric visions that seemed to define his characters: They were who they were because of what surrounded them. This is a key to German Expressionism, the influential silent style that told stories through bold and exaggerated visual elements--reality slipping over into nightmare and back again.