Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Invisible Man (1933) -- James Whale

In the 1930s Universal Studios hit upon a terrifically popular genre of film which featured distinctive monsters and spooky creatures that thrilled and excited movie audiences with suspense and danger. Because the genre was so commercially successful, the studio often developed horror series that showcased the characters and their offspring over the next ten to twenty years. The characters helped defined the legacy of the featured actors, and the films remain some of the most enjoyable classics, in large part for the obvious creativity of the directors and technicians employed to bring the stories to the screen.

The studio started it all with Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in 1931, and quickly followed with Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) later that same year. Today, most movie-lovers would consider these first two, Dracula and Frankenstein, as the dual kings of the creature features. But other scary characters came quickly on their heels, including The Mummy (Karloff again) in 1932; The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) in 1933; and The Wolf Man ( Lon Chaney Jr.) in 1941.

While you wouldn't want to meet any of these fellows on a dark night, if asked to choose, you might feel safest with The Invisible Man. However, in that you would be mistaken. The gauze-wrapped one was the most dangerous, racking up a staggering body count of at least 122.

One of author H.G. Wells best creations, the Invisible Man was published as a science fiction novella in 1897.  The story concerns a scientist who learns too late that there are some things that man must not meddle in. Director James Whale's cinematic take on the novella retains the basic elements, though the script adds a love interest, deletes a key character who briefly is coerced into helping The Invisible Man, makes the relationship between the Invisible Man and a former colleague much more familiar and recent, and alters the capture sequence.

Whale introduces the main character in a wonderfully atmospheric scene. A heavily garbed figure trudges through the swirling snow to the Lion's Head inn in search of a private room. His face is obscured behind dark glasses, a low-brimmed hat, and gauze wrapped tightly about the head.

The Invisible Man makes an ominous entrance.
The reaction of the inn's patrons to this strange apparition is fun to see. You can't blame them for wondering what type of man dresses so. The inn is run by horror film staple Una O'Conner, who will soon unleash her signature screaming, and is occupied by fellows who look like they spend a good amount of time in saloons. Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, including Henry Travers (Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life); Walter Brennen; and Dwight Fry (Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein).

The strange boarder just wants to be left alone to conduct his mysterious experiments. He soon fills his room with test tubes, percolating beakers of liquid, and other scientific equipment. When O'Conner makes too much of a nuisance of herself, The Invisible Man loses his temper and knocks the woman's hen-pecked husband down a flight of stairs, prompting a call to the police. The Invisible Man disrobes and soon, police and patrons are wrestling with an unseen figure. This incident seems to push the man over the edge psychologically. He goes from being a desperate scientist to a mad fiend intent on world domination.

Whale infuses the film with several moments of intended humor: an unseen force knocks off a man's hat and throws out a quip; an empty shirt appears to dance in the air; and most outrageously, pants with nobody inside them cavort down the street as The Invisible Man sings "Here we go gathering nuts in May." The character occasionally unleashes a maniacal laugh. None of these are particularly funny today, but may have been to audiences eighty years ago.

Una O'Conner.
The special effects, however, are still remarkable, an aspect of the film that makes it memorable. Audiences of the 1930s must have been amazed, and it's easy to imagine youngsters leaving the theater and playing "invisible man" for weeks afterwards. My favorite are the footprints that magically appear in the snow near the end, as police smoke the trapped villain out of a barn. You'd think Whales would have been more careful--the prints show a man in shoes rather than bare-feet. Another is a spectacular train wreck caused by the Invisible Man. We later learn that this accident resulted in the death of 100 passengers. 

Jack Fulton did the special effects. He'd win two Oscars during his career, one for The Ten Commandments. Nominations for best effects came with three of the The Invisible Man sequels. Fulton wasn't the only crew member that helped director Whales produce a top-notch thriller. Pioneering cameraman Arthur Edeson gave the film a sharp look with technically ground-breaking shots, including two overhead crane shots used to show police closing in on the murderer. Edeson was one of the best in the business. He'd worked with Whale on Frankenstein. Among his other credits are the spectacular All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Maltese Falcon.

An Example of the special effects -- The Invisible Man in a chair.

Having escaped the melee at the inn, and later mortally wounding a skeptical police officer with a bench to his head--his first murder--The Invisible Man makes his way to Dr. Kemp, a colleague he hopes to convince to partner with in a Reign of Terror. We learn that The Invisible Man's name is Jack Griffin. In an explanatory sequence, we are presented with the back story: Griffin has been fixated on secret research into optics. The novella goes into more detail than the film, but in essence it involves how objects absorb and reflect light. Griffin has learned to make himself invisible, but can't figure how to reverse the procedure.

Kemp, who'd like to get Griffin out of the way so he can pursue Griffin's fiance, Flora (Gloria Stuart of Titanic), calls in the police. Enraged, Griffin vows revenge, a promise he manages to achieve in what must be one of film's first "car over the cliff " sequences. Bound in the back seat, Kemp can only watch in terror as Griffin sends the car over the edge to a satisfying fiery explosion at the bottom.

The police eventually track the prey thanks to snow on the ground and Claude Rains finally gets revealed as The Invisible Man. Classic film-lovers, of course, recognize the distinctive voice from the first scene, but in 1931, American audiences got their first look at a man who would become one of our favourite character actors, securimg four Oscar nominations during the 1940s in the process.

Author H.G. Wells.

Author H.G. Wells was a prolific writer of science fiction and other genres. The Invisible Man was not the first film based on his work. French director George Melies found inspiration for his A Trip to the Moon (1902), featured in the recent film Hugo, from the works of Wells and Jules Verne. And Island of Lost Souls (1932) was based on the Wells novel, The Island of  Dr. Moreau. Wells continues to be a source for film-makers, one of the most famous being the 1960 feature, The Time Machine. Wells died in 1946.

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