Friday, November 18, 2016

Before I Die #588: The Last Laugh (1924)

This is the 588th movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Original German language Title: Der Letzte Mann

Director: F.W. Murnau

A brilliantly shot movie that loses nearly all of its narrative power in its final 10 minutes.

Directed by film legend F.W. Murnau, who dazzled and terrified audiences a few years earlier with Nosferatu, The Last Laugh is the story of a hotel porter whose life is shattered. The porter is an older man losing the physical strength required to carry and transport customers' baggage. His manager notices this and demotes him to the position of men's room attendant. The porter, a rather proud man who has always worn his flashy porter's jacket with immense pride, is devastated. So devastated, in fact, that he sneaks into the manager's office to steal back his jacket, just so he can wear it when he goes to and from his tenement apartment building. His ruse is eventually discovered, though, and his neighbors laugh directly into the fallen man's face. This humiliation sends the man even further into a broken, zombie-like state.

Up to this point, the movie tells a human tragedy in the spirit of the era's great novels and movies. But then, from out of seemingly nowhere, we get a title card explaining that the author has "taken pity" on the porter. In the blink of an eye, we flash forward in the story, where a newspaper headline informs us that the porter has inherited millions of dollars through sheer luck. He apparently was attending the men's room when a wealthy man died in his arms. The man's will stated that his entire fortune would go to the person in whose arms he died. Voila! Our sad, broken porter is now filthy rich. He now revels in his wealth, right in the middle of the hotel where he previously worked. He dines on the finest foods, drinks the most expensive champagnes, and showers the help with tips. In the final scenes, we see him offer a down-on-his-luck transient a ride in his coach.

There can't be many things as depressing as sitting in a men's
room, waiting to attend on some rich bastard's hygienic needs.
What the hell!? Before this movie, never had I seen such a clumsy shift in tone. I've watched a fair number of clumsy and simple films from the silent era, but this was by far the most jarring and bafflingly ingratiating "Hollywood" ending I've yet seen. In a way, it is almost worse than if they had simply had the porter wake up at the end, making the entire loss of his job a bad dream.

So obviously, the resolution to the story was a massive disappointment to me. When I ignore that, however, I have to say that The Last Laugh showed immense genius with visual film techniques. German film luminary F.W. Murnau, who had already directed the masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Fear, used camera angles, shadows, perspectives, and visual distortions to convey the porter's descent into his fugue state. These sequences are easily the best part of the film. They are the ones which still hold up all of these years later, and I have to assume them to be the reason that this film is still held in high regard. It certainly can't be the entirety of the story.

That's 588 films down. Only 599 to go before I can die.