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The Invisible Man (1933)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, Forrester Harvey

Written By: R.C. Sherriff, H.G. Wells (novel) Directed By: James Whale

The Short Version

The Invisible Man remains one of the strongest entries in Universal’s classic horror catalog.

It’s also one of the most accessible to today’s audiences with its modern attitude.

Claude Rains delivers an arresting performance despite only being visible as himself for the last five seconds of the movie.

It’s very well written; even HG Wells approved, for the most part.

Don’t let the black and white scare you; The Invisible Man is great stuff.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AGED CHEDDAR.

The good stuff, and it’s only better with age.


Pairs Well With...

BASS PALE ALE.

The perfect pick-me-up for an invisible man who’s just come in from a snowstorm.  “Couple of drinks, a gust of wind… so much for you!”

“Just sit where you are.  I'll get out and take the handbrake off and give you a little shove to help you on.  You'll run gently down and through the railings.  Then you'll have a big thrill for a hundred yards or so until you hit a boulder.  Then you'll do a somersault and probably break your arms.  Then, a grand finish up with a broken neck!  Well, goodbye, Kemp.  I always said you were a dirty little coward.  You're a dirty, sneaking little rat as well.  Goodbye!”


Save for the lack of profanity, the lines above read a lot like they were written for the present day, don’t they?  Sadistic, sarcastic, evil... all in all, thoroughly modern.  Especially since what follows is, well, exactly what the guy speaking said was going to happen, followed by a whole lot of flames to consume the wreck.  But no, the lines weren’t written for Jason Statham and the latest in “payback” style action flicks.  Instead, they were written for Claude Rains in his “talkie” debut as the title character in The Invisible Man.

Our story begins with a mysterious stranger (Claude Rains, Casablanca) trudging through the snow to a small village inn, where he demands a meal, a fire, and a room with a private sitting area.  It’s the off season, but the innkeepers figure that money’s money, so they agree to set him up as requested, though the man is quite insistent that he will not be giving up his coat and hat, no matter how soaked they may be…

Meanwhile, back in town, a certain Mr. Griffin is being missed by his colleagues at a chemistry research lab run out of the home of its director, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers, It’s A Wonderful Life).  Cranley insists that Griffin was given a sabbatical to complete some private research, but Griffin’s colleague, Kemp (William Harrigan, G Men), smells some kind of rat.  Of course, that doesn’t stop him from putting moves on Griffin’s intended: Cranley’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic)…

Now you get to do some math.  Add Griffin’s disappearance, the title of the movie, and the circumstances of the odd stranger at the small town inn, throw in a little insane megalomania, and I’m sure you’ll be able to piece it together from there.

Out of all of the movies that make up Universal’s classic horror catalog from the 1930s and 1940s, none feel as modern or speak to a present day audience as easily as 1933’s The Invisible Man.  Adapted with unusual fidelity from the masterpiece by brilliant futurist HG Wells, this is a film that really does feel ahead of its time, and the main reason for that is the general attitude.  This is not your old world gothic monstrosity or Snidely Whiplash villainy; this is borderline sadistic, very sarcastic, and devilishly mischievous stuff that speaks far more to modern patterns of thought and character than does most other horror that comes from this period.  Indeed, I’m convinced that this screenplay could translate perfectly to the present day with no major edits.

Interestingly, the very fidelity to the original material that is so atypical of Universal adaptations of this period is only broken in major part by changing a detail which in turn is even more atypical of Universal, and which was resulted in the only real complaint voiced by HG Wells, who otherwise loved the film.  In the book, Griffin’s insanity is the direct result of the reprehensible actions he perpetrates while invisible: a moralistic point of view that Universal horror films normally would go out of their way to espouse.  Here, though, the script plays with cause and effect, and declares that both Griffin’s insanity and his reprehensible behavior are both simply a side effect of one of the chemicals he used to create his invisibility formula.  This was a choice made by director James Whale to help the character seem more sympathetic, and as time has gone on, it’s actually helped The Invisible Man resist feeling dated by overt moralism.  Indeed, to the modern mind, though the book’s version is not implausible, the movie’s explanation makes more sense.

What also helps The Invisible Man stand the test of time is that the title character is not one dimensional.  While his actions are dastardly enough to put him firmly in the “evil” camp, there’s more to him than that.  One he goes over the deep end, he not only sets his sights on the standard megalomaniac’s goals of killing lots of people and eventually ruling the world, but he also goes for pranks and mischief and just plain silliness.  He steals a pair of pants from a policeman and then runs down a street wearing only said pants while singing a children’s tune (which of course has the effect of an unoccupied pair of pants moving by themselves).  When he steals a drawer full of cash from a bank, he gives it away.  In short, his madness is diverse, which makes him way more interesting than the standard “I’m just going to do nasty things and that’s it” villain, and, frankly, way more realistic.  It also seems to have satisfied the “comic relief” quota for the film, by and large eliminating what for many modern audiences is one of the greater exasperations of movies from this period.  (The cops may be bewildered, but given what they’re dealing with, that makes sense, and at least they’re not Keystone Kops about it.)

None of this would be possible, of course, without a brilliant performance by Claude Rains, who ironically had only worked on the silent screen before being cast (as a second choice after Boris Karloff was declared unavailable) in the title role, which of course rests solely upon the strength of his voice until literally the final seconds of the movie.  Rains does a beautiful job of granting full presence to his character through words alone, and when is on the screen under a heap of bandages and clothes that completely obscure his person, his gestures project all of the additional force that is otherwise denied by his inability to use facial expressions.  This really is an ultimate challenge of doing more with less, and Claude Rains meets it head on in a way that assured him a long and successful career ever after.

He’s helped, of course, by special effects that still stand up even almost eighty years on.  Yeah, they’re obvious for what they are to modern eyes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good; indeed, by 1933 standards, they’re beyond bloody brilliant.  What’s more, they’re still better and more realistic looking than a lot of the computer generated crap you see today.  Not only are effects excellent, but so’s the editing, which makes the stitching of the visual effects and the offstage recording of the voice of Claude Rains merge seamlessly to really sell the notion that it’s all coming from the same source at the same time.  It truly is a marvel to behold.

And behind it all is the man who insisted on getting The Invisible Man made in the first place, director James Whale.  After the incredible success of Frankenstein, Universal tried to get him to do a sequel, but Whale refused to consider it until he got a crack at making this movie first.  After a little hand-wringing, they relented (and Whale, for his part, would go on to make Bride of Frankenstein two years later after extracting further concessions), and the result is a directorial achievement that nearly rivals Whale’s signature work with Frankenstein.  For here, in very real sense, Whale himself is one of the men playing the lead.  Whenever the title character is in the scene but undressed, it is, after all, the camera that tells the audience where he is.  It’s a daunting task (remember, POV shots weren’t happening yet), but Whale is more than up to the challenge, and in the end, he makes it look effortless and easy even though his job here is anything but.

And as a bonus, this is also one of the first horror films you’ll find where you want to root for the bad guy.  How modern is that?

Is all of this to say that The Invisible Man is perfect?  Of course not.  (You, too, could be one of the millions to point out that a supposedly naked man leaves shoeprints in the snow, and yes, the exaggerated Cockney innkeepers can grate a bit.)  It does, however, stand the test of time remarkably well set next to its contemporaries, and may indeed speak to the present day even more effectively than it did to its own time.  Tack on the brilliant work of actor Claude Rains and director James Whale, and you’ve got a movie that’s still very much worth seeing even after almost eight decades.

Bottom line, The Invisible Man is a treasure from the past that’s definitely worth your time to seek out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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