January 13, 2020  (Web Review)

Man of a Thousand Faces

Arrow, 122 min., not rated, Blu-ray: $34.99

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Lon Chaney earned the titular nickname for the grotesque, misshapen characters that he created through a combination of elaborate make-up, contorted postures, and sensitive performances in such silent movie classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He died in 1930 after completing his only sound film (The Unholy 3). James Cagney stars as Chaney in this glossy 1957 Hollywood biography, a reverent but melodramatic tribute that focuses on the actor’s turbulent private life during his rise from vaudeville clown to hard-working Hollywood extra to movie star. Dorothy Malone costars as his unstable first wife, who abandons her husband and their young son after a failed suicide attempt, and Jane Greer is the loving showgirl who fills the void she leaves. Cagney is a short, thick pug of an actor where Chaney was tall and lean, but Cagney’s craggy, weathered face convincingly evokes Chaney (who was 35 years old when he broke through as a leading man), and Cagney is able to showcase his rarely-tapped dancing skills in the early vaudeville scenes and in his contorted recreations of Chaney performances. Most importantly, Cagney brings passion and compassion to the role, overcoming the indifferent direction by Joseph Pevney and show-biz clichés in the script to create a vivid portrait of the enigmatic cult star who rarely let audiences see his true face. Fans of film history will likely enjoy this otherwise conventional biopic. Arrow presents a new restoration of the film for its Blu-ray debut, which features extras including audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, a featurette on the life and legacy of Chaney by horror film historian Kim Newman, and an image gallery. Recommended. (S. Axmaker)