James Cagney has portrayed many a character throughout his career and so when the time came for casting someone to play the legendary Lon Chaney, who better than Cagney. Chaney, dubbed the Man of a Thousand Faces, would cement his career by transforming himself into a variety of monsters during the latter years of his time on the big screen, playing parts that were larger than life and yet when it came to the man himself, very little is ultimately known about his personal life. So when the time came to make a biopic about the man, a little extra storytelling was needed as well as just a few embellishments to make those known moments a little more compelling for the audience.
And compelling this movie would be as evidenced by its being nominated for Best Original Screenplay and not necessarily for just the script but by those who would star within starting with the one and only James Cagney who was no stranger to dramatic parts by this point in his career. A case could be made that he might have been just a tad too old to play the part of the young Lon Chaney but that would never cross a person’s mind once the picture got into the thick of it as Cagney would bring all that dramatic expertise to the forefront right from the start with Chaney and his first wife Cleva trying to make ends meet. Starring as Cleva would be the beautiful Dorothy Malone who was not short on talent either and she would come to be the villainess of the piece, not that the film needed one but it would make for some incredibly tension-fueled moments between the two leads. Also making themselves known in this picture would be Jane Greer as Hazel, the woman who would become Chaney’s second wife and Jim Backus as Chaney’s friend and press agent while Robert Evans would play Irving Thalberg. The film was not short on talented players who would each in turn provide some captivating performances and it made it all a movie one would not want to miss.
Also notable are the recreations of Chaney’s monsters like the Phantom and the Hunchback of Notre Dame and seeing Cagney try to bring them to life much like his predecessor did. While they were fairly accurate in one sense, they were not altogether as magical nor as practical as Chaney’s original creations. One cannot forget to mention the soundtrack by Frank Skinner which would add a level of subtlety throughout, it almost being a character of its own in the film as it would tie the events taking place together and add a little punch here and there when needed. Such as it is though, this movie belonged to Cagney through and through and he would be the biggest takeaway when all was said and done.
As far as biopics go, Man of a Thousand Faces may not have been completely accurate but it ranks up there among the best and is easily one that a person could watch on multiple occasions. It also makes one want to seek out the films of Lon Chaney to witness firsthand what a great actor the man had been as well as those of Cagney who would give it all no matter the role whether cowboy or gangster, songwriter or thespian. At the end of the day, despite one most likely knowing the ending of the film before actually seeing it, Man of a Thousand Faces is highly entertaining and a truly fantastic time at the movies.
4.5 out of 5