Friday, October 24, 2008

The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the evening with Charles running him the tape of The Invisible Man from 1933 and the immediate sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, from 1940. Charles liked the first film a lot better than the second — and rightly so; it has a finer story (it’s actually a very close adaptation of H. G. Wells’ original novel), James Whale’s marvelously quirky direction (including his penchant for strongly etched character roles — Una O’Connor is unforgettable and it’s fascinating to note how effective and authoritative Henry Travers is as the older scientist after getting to know him as the bumbling angel in It’s a Wonderful Life 13 years later) and a witty script by R. C. Sheriff (who wrote Whale’s first theatrical success, the play Journey’s End, that was also the basis of his first film) and an uncredited Philip Wylie.

Above all, it had Claude Rains, who is magnificent in the title role: his rich, fruity, well-modulated voice helps to make up for the fact that until the very end of the film he’s either wrapped up in bandages or totally invisible, just a voice on the soundtrack. (For me, the best moment in his superb performance is how he, at least briefly, softens his voice when he meets his girlfriend Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.) John P. Fulton’s special effects are among the most remarkable ever filmed — they were done by wrapping Rains’ body in black cloth and filming him against a black screen; if Rains were to appear partially dressed in the film sequence, or to take his clothes off, his clothes would be put on over the black wrappings; and if he were to manipulate an object with the final effect being one of him, say, lighting and smoking a cigarette with himself invisible and only the cigarette, the pack it came from, and the match visible on screen, he handled these objects against the black screen.

What emerged when this film was processed as negative was a clear strip of film in which only his clothes and the objects he was handling registered; and this strip, a reversal print in which the clothes and objects were darkened into black silhouettes, and the camera negative containing the rest of the scene’s action (including any other actors shown in the final scene) were optically printed together. Though a few of the more complicated scenes have the telltale black ring around the “invisible” figure that indicates the use of this technique and gives it away that this is a composite shot, for the most part the effects are marvelously convincing. — 8/30/97


The Invisible Man is something else altogether: a James Whale masterpiece, faithfully adapted by R. C. Sherriff (author of the World War I play Journey’s End, which made Whale a star director on both stage and screen) from the H. G. Wells novel and successfully “bent” by both Sherriff and Whale to fit the latter’s weird camp sensibility that makes his films continue to work as off-the-wall melodramas even as familiarity has worn the edges off them and made them relatively unfrightening. Sherriff got the call from Whale to come out to Universal and write the script; when he got there he found a policy where the writers literally had to punch in on a time clock and work in a large, sterile office building. Whale told Sherriff that he should punch in, spend his days wandering around the lot and watching how films were made, and then return to his hotel room at night to do the actual writing.

Universal also provided Sherriff with about 14 “treatments” of The Invisible Man — all of them substantially altered from the original, including one set in Czarist Russia and one set on Mars — but they didn’t have a copy of the Wells novel he was supposedly adapting. Sherriff bought one after a long search through L.A.’s second-hand bookstores, and on reading it decided that it would make a great movie just as Wells had written it — which explains the fact that, unlike Whale’s Frankenstein (which uses little from Mary Shelley’s novel but its central premise, its Swiss setting and a few of the character names), The Invisible Man is actually a quite close adaptation of the text and many of the lines that seem most Whalian — including the title character’s famous lamentation on the disadvantages of being invisible — were actually Wells’s.

The Invisible Man holds up vividly, thanks to the marvelous performance of Claude Rains in the title role (in a story where he’s either swathed in bandages or not seen at all until the very end, in the great climax where he fades back in to visibility as he dies, his skill at modulating his voice and projecting the character’s mood swings through inflection alone is dazzling), the degree to which Whale’s camp sensibility matches the original material, the marvelously convincing special effects by John P. Fulton and the rich cast: Gloria Stuart playing the abandoned girlfriend of Jack Griffin (Rains) with utter sincerity, Henry Travers as Griffin’s former employer in a far different characterization from the rather fey one he’s best known for (as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life 13 years later), William Harrigan as the genuinely conflicted Kemp, Griffin’s colleague and would-be betrayer (just because we’re rooting for him doesn’t mean we have to like him, and we don’t), Una O’Connor as the innkeeper’s wife in the opening scenes (as usual, she doesn’t walk; she scuttles, and the three doors and hinged shelves art director Charles Hall’s set required her to open to get out from behind the bar to go anywhere else in the inn are used quite effectively by Whale to underscore the level of panic in which her character seems to lives her entire life), and three actors who make an indelible impression even though unbilled: Walter Brennan as the man whose bicycle is stolen by the Invisible Man in an early scene, Dwight Frye as a reporter asking tough questions of the police during a press conference, and John Carradine as a tipster offering one of many dumb suggestions for catching the Invisible Man.

There are a few minor technical glitches — scenes in which the process work leaves a tell-tale black line around an object supposedly being manipulated by the Invisible Man, a few shots where if you look very closely Rains’ head appears as a faint bubble-like shadow on the screen, and some simple editing and technical mistakes (in one scene a radio announcer reporting on the events is still heard for a second or so after the Invisible Man has turned the radio off; in one scene in which Rains is supposed to be invisible the low camera angle picked by Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson shows his nostrils under the bandage, and there’s the big one Leslie Halliwell mentioned in The Filmgoer’s Companion: in the final scene, when the Invisible Man flees the burning barn and is shot down by police who can see his tracks through the snow, his footprints are those of a man wearing shoes even though he’s supposed to be barefoot) — but it’s an indication of how powerful this film really is that it takes a lot of viewings of this film to notice them.

Like King Kong, made the same year, The Invisible Man doesn’t sacrifice the other elements of good movie-making — creative direction, literate scriptwriting, fine acting — on the altar of dazzling effects, as good as the effects work is; though both The Invisible Man and King Kong could be remade today with digital effects, one can’t imagine either being done with the marvelous sensibilities of the originals: the quasi-documentary “you are there” feel of the original King Kong (made by filmmakers who had started out as documentarians and brainstormed how they would react being confronted by living dinosaurs and giant apes on an uncharted island, however unlikely and silly they knew that premise to be) and the curious campiness and identification with the outsider Whale brought to his greatest films (his homosexuality? Certainly camp is the default setting for Queer humor — though Whale’s subtle mocking of the conventions not only of society but of the horror genre itself is far more sophisticated than the dumb lampooning that passes for “camp” today — and the fascination with the private lives of his monsters that Carlos Clarens attributed to Whale might indeed have been his veiled plea for acceptance as a Gay man). — 10/36/04


I ran him another quirky movie set in England: The Invisible Man, the nonpareil 1933 masterpiece from Universal directed by James Whale at his near-quirkiest (The Bride of Frankenstein was him at his absolute quirkiest and the 1935 murder mystery Remember Last Night?, his offtake on the Thin Man series with the alcohol consumption ramped up even higher, also is noteworthy in that regard and particularly for how much of the iconography of his horror films Whale was able to get into a quite different kind of movie) from a screenplay by R. C. Sherriff (author of the play Journey’s End, which had established Whale as a “star” director both on stage and on film) that hewed surprisingly closely to the H. G. Wells novel on which the film was based — unlike the Universal adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, which took little more from their originals than the basic premises and character names.

The closeness was more an accident than anything else; as Sherriff recalled years later, when he showed up at Universal he was not only confronted with a requirement that he clock in and out on a time clock (which appalled him until Whale suggested that he show up, clock in, wander around the studio and get a look at how films were made, then clock out again, go to the hotel room where he was staying in L.A. and do the actual writing in his room at night) but found to his astonishment that they didn’t have a copy of the book he was supposed to be adapting. Instead they had about 14 “treatments” by previous writers they’d assigned to the project, including one set in Czarist Russia and another set on Mars. Sherriff scoured the second-hand bookstores of L.A. for a copy of the Wells novel, finally found one, read it and decided the book would make an excellent film just as it stood — so he wrote a script that closely followed the novel and it did make a marvelous film. (Some of the touches that Carlos Clarens and others considered especially characteristic of Whale — notably the long speech in which the Invisible Man explains the perils of his condition, including that his food is visible until he digests it and he can’t go out in rain or fog because those conditions would give him away, it’s awkward for him to climb stairs because “we’re so used to watching our feet” and even dirt under his fingernails can give him away — were taken almost verbatim from the Wells novel.)

I probably wouldn’t have made this connection if I hadn’t been reading more of David Sheff’s memoir of his son’s drug addiction, Beautiful Boy, while in line at the screening (I’m reading it in counterpoint with the son’s own book about his experiences, Tweak), but in addition to all its other qualities The Invisible Man, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, seems powerfully metaphoric for substance abuse and the problems it creates not only for the abuser but for his or her loved ones. Both books were originally written towards the end of the 19th century, when morphine, heroin and cocaine were still legal and their horrendous adverse effects were only just becoming known — and I suspect both Stevenson and Wells were aware of the burgeoning awareness of the effects of drug addiction and consciously modeled their stories around it. The Invisible Man is the story of a person who takes a powerful drug and leaves his surrogate “family” to live in isolation and practice his habit in secret, and at least two aspects of the movie rang incredibly true to me in light of what both Sheffs were writing about in their books: the statement of Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), the Invisible Man, that the drugs he was taking “seemed to clear my brain” (when in fact they were driving him crazy!) and the reaction of his surrogate “family” — his employer, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers, in a serious and un-campy role almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played Clarence the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life); his fiancée, Cranley’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart in a marvelous performance — she did say the three best directors she ever worked for were Whale, John Ford and James Cameron); and his colleague, Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan, such a singularly overbearing screen presence that instead of regarding it as tragedy when Griffin kills him, we’re thinking to ourselves, “Good riddance”), who’s also after Flora — when he turns up is to want to protect him and help “cure” him even though he’s actually confessed to them that he’s become a murderer and a terrorist.

The emotions ring true even in a film with a plot premise so fantastic as this one — and Whale’s love of eccentric characters shows through in the casting of Forrester Harvey and Una O’Connor as the husband and wife who manage the Lion’s Head pub in the tiny village of Iping where the story begins. Though there’s one major slip-up in the dressing of the Iping pub set I’d never noticed before (the dartboard is an American-style one instead of a British one), for the most part the atmosphere is flawlessly evoked and the three doors O’Connor’s character has to open to get from behind the bar to anywhere else in the building practically become a character in themselves. The film isn’t particularly scary — it’s really more of a science-fiction thriller than a horror movie — but it’s gripping throughout, well staged (I couldn’t help but wonder how Whale instructed his actors to double over and fall down when they were supposedly being punched by the Invisible Man), and Claude Rains’ performance is utterly convincing even though he gives it almost exclusively by voice alone. (According to, many of the scenes showing Rains as the Invisible Man were done with a body double — they involved wrapping the actor in black velvet and filming him against a black backdrop, both of which became clear when the negative was developed and could be processed in — and for scenes in which he’s wearing only a shirt or smoking a cigarette, the props were the only objects in the scene that would register photographically; Rains did a lot of these scenes himself but one could readily imagine that he wouldn’t have wanted to put himself through a lot of the subsidiary action, and his double was apparently taller and had a more prominent nose than Rains.)

Little touches like how he softens his intonations when Flora’s name is mentioned — to show that, even though monocaine, the drug he’s used to make himself invisible (in the sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, the drug has become “duocaine” and I remember joking that for the third film in the series they were going to make it “tricaine”), has turned him into a megalomaniac, he still has enough of a soft side that he responds to the name of his lover. Like Whale’s other horror (broadly defined) films for Universal, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is a marvelously sophisticated film, capable of entertaining and even moving audiences even after the “horrific” images have become so familiar that they’re simply no longer scary.

Incidentally, the “Trivia” section on this film has an account of how Rains got the part that differs from the ones I’d read before; the stories agree that Universal wanted to cast Boris Karloff as the Invisible Man, but claims that Whale wanted Rains from the get-go because he thought Rains’ voice sounded “more intellectual” than Karloff’s (which seems hard to believe!). The version I’d heard before was that Karloff was offered the part but turned it down because the character would never be seen on screen until the very last scene (an interesting inversion of Bela Lugosi’s giving Karloff his big chance by turning down Frankenstein because the Monster had no dialogue!), and Whale sought out Rains because he’d never made a film before (actually, he had, but they’d all been small parts in minor English productions) and he liked the idea of casting the Invisible Man with an actor whose face was unknown to movie audiences so no one would have a mental image of what he looked like. — 10/24/08