by Mel Valentin
Although James Whale directed more than twenty films, his reputation as a filmmaker is due primarily to three films made in the early 1930s for Universal Pictures, "Frankenstein" in 1931, the sequel, "The Bride of Frankenstein" in 1935, and "The Invisible Man," made and released in 1933. Whale also directed the lesser-known "The Old Dark House" in 1932. With one or two exceptions (e.g., the 1939 production of "The Man in the Iron Mask," an adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel), Whale's reputation rests on his contributions to the horror genre and the fictionalized biography of his later years spent in semi-exile from Hollywood, "Gods and Monsters." Whale died in 1957, a suicide by drowning.Whale imbued his horror films with a strongly gothic sensibility filtered through expressionistic set design, atmospheric lighting, and shadow-heavy, black-and-white cinematography. Whether due to his personal preferences or his screenwriting collaborators, Whale's horror films were also suffused with grimly ironic, black humor. Given the post-silent film time period, the performance style in Whale's films were, to be charitable, non-naturalistic, relying on hyperbole and pantomime to convey emotion and the inner state of his tortured characters. Performance styles ranged from near hysteria to full-blown, eye-popping hysteria. Every line of dialogue was underlined by overemphatic vocal inflection and exaggerated body language, exactly what you’d expect from theater actors segueing into film acting or film actors making the transition from silent film to sound.
"Now you see him, now you don't. But you should. See him, that is."
Which brings us to The Invisible Man, Whale's 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1897 novel of the same name about, as the title informs us, an invisible man, but he's no "ordinary" invisible man, he's the first invisible man in science fiction and the first to make the transition to the silver screen. To put an invisible man onscreen, circa 1933, demanded ingenuity and imagination. Visual effects that soon became the norm (and subsequently clichéd) for depicting invisibility on film were first dreamed up and used to startle and impress audiences with The Invisible Man.
Most of the invisibility effects were created with wires, some hidden, some visible (just wait for the scene to see an ingenious use of wires to magically transport a rider-free bicycle from end of a road to another). When he isn’t wrapped in bandages and an overcoat (or fashionable pajamas, robe, and sash), the invisible man effects were created by having the actor dressed in a black velvet suit from head to toe filmed against a black velvet background. These shots were then integrated with shots taken of the relevant locations.
At this point, you’re probably curious about the story and its themes? Story wise, The Invisible Man isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. It was, after all, made in 1933, when ideas about science and fiction were still relatively new and before lazy screenwriters and their producers used them as part of a template to generate profits ad infinitum (well, until every variation was thought of and produced). A stranger (Claude Rains), his face wrapped by bandages, his eyes covered by thick goggles, appears one snowbound night at a country inn, the Lion’s Head. The locals immediately begin speculating about the stranger. Some think he’s a criminal on the run from the police, others think he’s an accident victim, recovering from surgery. They’re wrong, of course.
The stranger is none other than the invisible man, Jack Griffin, a chemist and scientist who experimented on himself. Unfortunately, the process is irreversible, but Griffin seems sure he can find the antidote. But to find the antidote, Griffin needs a clear head and plenty of alone time. The invisibility drug has an unanticipated side effect, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and, eventually madness. As for the alone time, the inn’s owner, Jenny (Una O'Connor), can’t help but let her curiosity get the better of her. Griffin and Jenny mix it up and Jenny, citing unpaid bills, sends her milquetoast husband, Herbert (Forrester Harvey), to remove their recalcitrant tenant.
Griffin loses it and goes on a rampage through the village. Thanks to the regional and national papers, Griffin’s unhinged antics come to the attention of his former employer and benefactor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and Cranley’s daughter, Flora (Gloria Stuart). Flora also happens to be Griffin’s fiancé. That doesn’t stop Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), Griffin’s ex-co-worker, from letting Flora know that he’s there for her. Flora, of course, can only think of finding Griffin. Cranley and Kemp begin to connect Griffin’s disappearance with the reports of an invisible man run amuck. Griffin’s antics, however, soon turn deadly, leading to a national manhunt, but how do you find and capture an invisible man?
As the preceding description indicates, The Invisible Man begins in media res: Griffin is already invisible, but finding the process irreversible, he’s left Flora and his former life behind in the hopes of finding an antidote. By the time we meet Griffin, the invisibility formula’s pernicious effects have begun to take hold. He’s not insane, but he’s one irascible invisible man. Wouldn’t you be, if no one could see you? So on it goes, with Griffin’s grip on sanity growing more tenuous by the day, which increasingly makes Griffin an unsympathetic protagonist. He’s no “hero,” at least not in the classic sense. He’s already made the decision that will doom him, but that happened before the film began. What’s left is a gradual tightening of the plot until Griffin finds himself alone, isolated, and unlikely to survive his last encounter with the police.
Just in case it isn’t clear, we get to hear the “don’t meddle with things beyond the ken of man” theme not once, but twice, first uttered by Kemp, then later by Griffin in a momentary state of lucidity. Wells’ political leanings (he was a lifetime socialist) are nowhere to be found in Whale and R.C. Sherriff’s adaptation of Wells’ novel. On the plus side, though, Whale’s injects Griffin’s journey with pathos and black humor, allowing him (and us) brief respites from Griffin’s trajectory into tragedy (e.g., Griffin’s first disrobing, where he turns into a giggling child, later followed by his mischievous spree through the village, and finally, near the end, a scene involving a police officer’s pants).In sum, "The Invisible Man" has everything you can expect from Universal Pictures and their horror output during the 1930s, compelling, flawed, characters, sparkling black-and-white cinematography, above-average performances, tight pacing, and (then) state-of-the-art visual effects. What it doesn’t have is much in the way of social or political subtext, but that’s forgivable. Less forgivable is Claude Rains’ brief time onscreen. For all but the last scene, we hear Rains (cast by Whale for his distinctive voice) but don’t get to “see” him. Luckily for film fans, Rains went on to act for another thirty years on film (mostly as a character actor), including a memorable turn as the amoral Captain Renault in Michael Curtiz’s "Casablanca."
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originally posted: 10/26/06 17:37:52