Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) – Film Review
Director: Joseph Pevney
Cast: James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer
by Sarah Morgan
Lon Chaney is almost a forgotten man – unless you happen to be a fan of classic horror. During the silent era, he made a string of unforgettable appearances in movies that scared their audiences silly, and even if you don’t know his name, you will be familiar with at least one of his most iconic roles – that of The Phantom of the Opera in the 1925 adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel.
While the most frightening aspect of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the tale is the songs, it’s Chaney’s appearance that lasts long in the memory; he pulled up the tip of his nose and held it in place with wire, enlarged the appearance of his eye sockets and nostrils by painting them black, and wore jagged false teeth.
And that’s just one example of his dedication to his art – Chaney spent almost his entire film career caked in grotesque make-up, which he designed and applied himself, and was also capable of contorting his body into weird and not-so-wonderful positions.
This sanitised biopic stars James Cagney as Chaney. The film gives an overview of his life and career, suggesting he became a great mime because his parents were deaf mutes, and paying particular attention to his two marriages.
It’s a fascinating story, even if the movie takes liberties with the truth (for example, Chaney is depicted as dying peacefully at home surrounded by his loved ones, when in fact he suffered a haemorrhage while in hospital), but the main problem is Cagney. Chaney was a huge success because he managed to hide his true self, but Cagney is way too big a personality for the role.
Dorothy Malone and Jane Greer are fine in support as the women Chaney loved, and there’s a look at the early life of his son Creighton, later to become a horror star under the name Lon Chaney Jr after his father’s death.
What it does make viewers think about is what might have happened had Chaney lived. Experts believed he would have played Dracula and the monster in Frankenstein, thus denying Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff of their career-making roles; he would probably have designed the make-up for the monster too – which means that square-headed look would never have been created.
Special features include a chat with Kim Newman, which is intriguing once he starts to actually talk about Chaney, but there’s a tad too much waffle around the subject.
Whatever your own opinion of the subject matter, the film provides viewers with a good introduction to a key figure in cinema history.
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
New audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas
The Man Behind a Thousand Faces, a newly filmed look at Lon Chaney and his legacy by the critic Kim Newman
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
Man of a Thousand Faces is released on Blu-ray by Arrow, £22.99