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For many, the entire career of Marcel Marceau could be viewed as a decades long preamble to a single declaration of ”No”. As the word most often reserved to greet the advances of wayward mimes, in Silent Movie, the tables will be turned. Mel Brooks instead offers it to Marceau as the only audible line of dialogue that will be spoken in the film. It will famously be shouted over a telephone to make it clear he wants no part of Brooks’ attempt at reviving pre-sound movies. For once, it is the mime that doesn’t want us.

Normally, they aren’t quite so easy to get rid of as this. Doggedly fighting against all manner of wind and invisible boxes to accost their audience, the mime has a known history of harassment, no matter how whimsically silent. A pest as persistent as the cockroach, they demand to entertain us, no matter how wretched our faces become as they approach. So it can hardly come as any surprise that in William Castle’s “Shanks”, made only a few years previously, we can easily detect this neediness for an audience, as unhealthily present as ever. It’s in the very marrow of Marceau’s bird like bones, so deep we can sense it even when he is not performing one of his silent tricks. It almost seems as if he is just as captive to his artform as the audiences he corners.

In playing the lead character of deaf-mute puppeteer Maurice Shanks, it will turn out that even while unburdened from the make-up and costume of his most famous alter ego—Bip the Clown—Marceau still cannot help but move with a pathological carefulness. Even when playing an ordinary man, engaged in ordinary functions such as walking across a room, it is as if each step he takes was only allowed to be considered after first being studied for many hours in front of a dance studio mirror. He is as majestic as he is unnatural. And to witness the extraordinary confidence he shows over every twitch and pivot his body makes, is to conversely realize the enormous self-consciousness that must fuel such superhuman control. Hardly able to move a muscle without first supposing an audience, there is a tragic air to his gait. No longer encased inside of the secure greasepaint of Bip the Clown, he can best be likened to a hermit crab after being shoehorned from its shell, strutting like it thinks we can’t see how edible he’s just become. But we can’t help notice this vulnerability, not as long as we continue watching how unwilling or unable he is to just be ordinary for even a moment.

Unfortunately for Marceau, these alien qualities of his only lend a movie already abundant in inert strangeness yet another layer of peculiarity without much of a point. In the beginning of the film, as we are introduced to his puppets, and also a mysterious Old Man (also played by Marceau) who teaches him the art of puppeteering living beings, it seems we are going into interesting places. There almost seems a natural kinship between the form of the films narrative, and the way in which Marceau’s compulsive miming is constantly tugging upon his own strings. There are hopes we will get a glimpse at the sadness at the root of the need to perform. The prison it constructs for those talented enough to become successful.

Instead, what we get is a concept that seems as if it was little more than a vehicle to stage a series of scenes for mimes to sabotage with considerably less guilt than is deserved. And worst of all, Marceau hardly will participate in these scenes. Their success will mostly be left up to second stringers, who dance and bob and wiggle for the approval of the man in control of them both on-screen (as he twists and turns the knobs he uses to control them), and off screen (choreographing all of the movements the audience would likely much prefer he perform himself). It is almost as if Marceau is taking some kind of revenge on the entirety of the mime world.

Watching it all unfold feels like such a miscalculation on the part of everyone involved that it almost has to be wondered how deliberate this all was. To be forced to witness the world’s greatest mime, trapped inside of one of the most inexpressive characters in cinematic history, all we can do is watch his talent seep pointlessly out from all of the mundane actions he commits to the screen. It feels almost criminal, especially when we are forced to watch considerably less talented clowns take up so much of the screen time doing things we know he could do better.

Only briefly does Marceau give himself any moments to really shine, and it will only be as the character Old Man Walker, who the story chooses to bury beneath the ground within the first half hour. Committing himself to a beautifully tragic/comic sequence where he is raised from the dead by a puppeteer not yet familiar with the burden of manipulating a full-grown human body, Marceau’s performance here is so clever and diabolically accomplished, its only function seems to be to shame what comes next, which will mostly be a bunch of desperate jitterbugging by lesser lights than him. When the character thankfully returns at the climax of the film, it is only a cruel punctuation mark to their obvious not-very-goodness.

So maybe, after all, I need to reconsider my first assumption of this piece. Maybe Silent Movie was not the only instance where a mime could not find the time for his audience. Maybe Shanks is Marceau’s attempt at taking the art form he dedicated his life and body to and using it to trap and disappoint the audience that has voluntarily come to see him. Why, after all, should he be the only one that mime has captured for its nefarious purposes. By this point, Marceau must have known he would never escape, no matter how loudly he shouted ‘NO’'.