Man Of A Thousand Faces Review
Universal Pictures' hagiography of Lon Chaney, Man Of A Thousand Faces, was the studio’s special release for the Golden Jubilee of Hollywood; which perhaps goes some way to explaining why it’s so flavourless. It manages to waste a great subject – the rise to prominence of one of America’s greatest and most dedicated film stars – by placing it in a morass of laughable soap-operatics which would shame daytime television. Worse, it wastes the talent of the magnificent James Cagney by giving him nothing to work with except a one-dimensional character and a string of clichéd scenes. Evry time he can, he saves the movie with a sideways glance or a bit of nicely observed business, but he’s fighting a losing battle.
My colleague Clydefro Jones has admirably covered the film in his Region 1 review for DVD Times and I largely agree with his views. I won’t repeat them here. I direct you to his excellent review and will add a few observations of my own by way of a conclusion.
Eureka’s DVD of Man Of A Thousand Faces is part of their highly inconsistent ‘Classics’ line and, like other discs in the series, is a barebones presentation of a film licensed from one of the major studios for release in the UK. Much stands or falls, consequently, on the quality of the AV presentation.
On a cursory look, the transfer seems pretty good. The NTSC video format suggests that it’s a direct port of the Universal release from last year. However, I found there to be an emphatic over-enhancement throughout. On a small display, this isn’t too bad but anything larger makes the image look unsightly at times. The positive side of things is that this print is remarkably clean and clear of damage. The soundtrack is slightly better, offering crisp dialogue throughout, although not without a degree of unnecessary hiss.
There are no extras nor, indeed, subtitles.
It’s always struck me as peculiar that a film which was as supposedly significant as this one for Universal should have been entrusted to second-string talent behind the camera. Joseph Pevney began as an actor and was briefly under contract to Fox before turning to direction in 1950. He made a couple of mildly good flms - Meet Danny Wilson with Sinatra for example – and a few entertaining clinkers - The Strange Door, for instance, in which Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton engage in a spirited hamming contest. But by 1957, he was reduced to the likes of Congo Crossing and the inexplicably fondly remembered Tammy And The Bachelor and within a few years, he was working exclusively for television. His work on this movie is certainly efficient enough but its very bland and not even Russell Metty’s atmospheric black and white Scope cinematography can maintain the interest.
The biggest problem however, is the script which scores cheap psychological points regarding Chaney’s deaf family and demonises his first wife to a ludicrous extent – made even worse, it has to be said, by Dorothy Malone’s extravagantly awful performance. It spends a lot of time on Chaney’s family life and his pre-Hollywood work and never delves into how he created his extraordinary characters on screen. It’s this script which eventually defeats James Cagney – who is, in any case, decidedly miscast. Casting such a powerfully charismatic and individualistic actor as another distinctive actor is a dubious endeavour at best and Cagney, ironically, only convinces in the part when he’s playing himself rather than Chaney.
I’m not entirely sure what anyone apart from die-hard Cagney fans would get out of this film. There are lots of valuable written sources which can be consulted by anyone who has an interest in Chaney’s life or silent cinema and anyone else would do far better to watch one of his original films – the recreations in the biopic pale in contrast the originals, particularly in terms of make-up. Until this DVD releases, Man Of A Thousand Faces was hard to get hold of in the UK and it might have been better if it had stayed that way.