Arrow Video: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) - Reviewed

Actors Lon Chaney and James Cagney, though separated by many years, were major Hollywood legends in their own respective times.  Passionate and gifted in their kindred abilities to morph into wildly disparate characters who couldn’t be more different from themselves, Chaney and Cagney set the bar for larger than life performances very high for many decades.  That the two icons of film would cross paths one day seemed unthinkable but in this 1957 biographical drama of the aptly named Man of a Thousand Faces, Mr. Cagney took on the unenviable task of portraying Mr. Chaney, one of the silver screen’s most versatile and still largely unmatched chameleons. 

While much of his life was spent in front of big studio film cameras making unforgettable and timeless movies focused on grotesque characters often ostracized from society, Mr. Chaney himself remained an intensely private man who kept his personal life out of the public eye.  Though this Academy Award nominated CinemaScope production by jack-of-all-trades director Joseph Pevney wound up taking the route most celebrity biopics do by fictionalizing some events for dramatic effect, Man of a Thousand Faces attempts to get to the heart of the man behind the mask and what drove so many of his greatest moments before the camera. 

Following Chaney from his early days of Vaudeville on stage to the eventual transition to film from silent pictures to talkies, Man of a Thousand Faces plays a bit like a greatest hits compilation of some of the actor’s most iconic characterizations.  Technically speaking it’s handsomely photographed in panoramic widescreen by Russell Metty and sports an evocative score by Frank Skinner, though the picture is largely lead by the magnetism of James Cagney.  It’s hard to imagine the film without him.  While it does take liberties with his neurotic wife Cleva Chaney’s (Dorothy Malone) portrayal including making her additionally unsympathetic towards her husband’s deaf parents, it doesn’t hide her own transgressions including attempted suicide by drinking mercuric acid as well as abandoning her son during his childhood.

The implication here is that Mr. Chaney worked tirelessly in acting to maintain a secure and stable roof over his son’s head though the real Lon Chaney always said his personal and professional lives never collided with one another.  The film also tends to make Chaney a saintly figure when the history books will point to a man who was a bit rougher around the edges than the one seen here.  Man of a Thousand Faces lets Lon Chaney off the hook somewhat in the treatment of his wife though Cagney adds the line ‘I drove her to this’ which keeps viewers from picking sides.

Though he looks nothing like the real Lon Chaney, James Cagney’s performance as the mysterious yet ingenious actor is full of emotion and heart.  In moments of meta-filmmaking, Cagney is tasked with having to convey personal emotions through his many makeup setups more than once including his most famous role as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Take for instance a scene where the actor is filming a pivotal sequence in Hunchback donned in his deformed makeup and the actor breaks character when his wife appears on set, resulting in a heated argument so stern he doesn’t wait to take his costume off before laying into her.  It’s a remarkable sequence where both Chaney and actor Cagney are forced to convey complex emotions from behind a mask, a testament to both actors’ gifts for performing. 

Probably the most surprising casting bit in an already meta biopic is that of then-actor/future-Paramount CEO Robert Evans as legendary Universal Studios CEO Irving Thalberg.  Opening the picture at an obituary for Mr. Chaney with the film playing as flashback, that the late Robert Evans portraying such an iconic film producer would go on to become an iconic film producer himself in later years remains a most curious coincidence and turn of events.  At a time now with studio heads generally being frowned upon as only caring about the bottom line, it’s refreshing to see Mr. Thalberg portrayed with such sympathy and a clear passion for storytelling.

As much about Lon Chaney as it is about the man portraying him, Man of a Thousand Faces represented an important chapter in James Cagney’s career though Chaney die-hards will likely come away saying the legendary actor’s life was “Hollywoodized” for the big screen.  Despite the fictionalization, it remains an engaging and entertaining traditional Hollywood biopic which for the uninitiated proves to be a good starting point to learn about both actors.  Lon Chaney demonstrated an uncanny ability to disappear into a role past the point of being recognizable and James Cagney clearly had an admiration for that kind of actor power.  Mr. Cagney might not look much like Mr. Chaney but he most certainly “gets” him.

--Andrew Kotwicki