Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Movie villains smile so compulsively because it creates a creepy disconnect between their mouth and their eyes. Imagine, however, a good man, condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime. Such a creature would be bullied as a child and shunned as an adult. "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), one of the final treasures of German silent Expressionism, is about such a man. His name is Gwynplaine. His father was a nobleman. Orphaned as a child, he is captured by outlaws who use a knife to carve his face into a hideous grin. Disfigured, alone, he rescues a baby girl, and together they are raised by a fatherly vaudeville producer. As adults, they star in the producer's sideshow and fall in love. Because she is blind, she does not know about his grin.
This story, set in 17th century England, was written by Victor Hugo, and made into one of the last (almost) silent films by Paul Leni, the director of "Waxworks" (1927) and "The Cat and the Canary" (1929). He was an art director who grew up in Germany during the era of Expressionism -- of films dominated by twisted sets and characters, harsh angles, deep shadows, careening staircases. He and his star, the great Conrad Veidt, two Jewish refugees, made the film for Universal in Hollywood.
The image of Veidt's face with its disturbing grimace became familiar to anyone who opened a film history, but the film itself was hard to find; I saw it for the first time at the Telluride Festival in 1998, where Peter Bogdanovich programmed a series from "Hollywood's Greatest Year." That was 1928, he said, when they had gotten silent films right and had not yet started to get sound films wrong. It was filmed just at the moment when Hollywood was uneasily experimenting with sound. Like many other films from the same year, it was conceived in silence and then a little sound was grafted on. The movie has no significant spoken dialogue but did have rudimentary sound effects, and the Kino DVD restoration includes a musical score, a song and some indistinct shouts during a mob scene.
"The Man Who Laughs" is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film. Everything centers on the extraordinary face of Gwynplaine, whose wide and mirthless grin inspired the Joker character in the original Batman comic books. Unlike the Joker and most villains who smile, however, he is a good and decent man, one so horribly aware of his disfigurement that he reveals it only on the stage, as a way to earn a living. The rest of the time he hides behind masks, scarves, handkerchiefs, or his own upturned arm. The blind girl, Dea (Mary Philbin), loves him, but he thinks that is only because she does not know his secret.