Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale                                    Writer: R.C. Sherriff
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Stewart, Henry Travers and William Harrigan

There’s a lot of irony surrounding Claude Rains’ first motion picture. For one thing, prior to beginning his acting career he had an almost indecipherable Cockney accent and had to train himself to be understood. And yet, in the end, his rich, cultured voice is one of the treasures of the screen. How fascinating, then, that his first film is one in which his face is never seen until the very last frames of the picture, depending almost entirely on his voice to convey his prodigious talent. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ popular novel The Invisible Man was James Whale’s third “horror” film at Universal, following Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. To the director’s horror, however, each became more successful than the last until he felt in peril of becoming typecast, especially when his next horror outing, The Bride of Frankenstein, quickly became one of the most beloved horror films of all time.

R.C. Sherriff’s screenplay takes Wells’ story and gives it that James Whale touch. Claude Rains, trudging through the snow, comes upon an inn where he wants to work on his experiment in anonymity. He has discovered the secret of invisibility but unfortunately can’t turn himself back. Ordinarily the urgency to find a cure wouldn’t be as dire, but in this case by the time he learns that the invisibility drug is slowly driving him insane it’s too late. Henry Travers is the scientist he was working for, and his daughter Gloria Stewart is engaged to Rains. Back at the inn, his idea of working in peace is shattered by the nosiness of Una O’Connor and her patrons. It’s here that Rains snaps and heads back to town to enlist the aide of William Harrigan to carry out his reign of terror.

Whale’s direction is eccentric as the man himself. He has wonderfully fluid camera movements and interesting framing devices for close-ups. Early in the film he has Gloria Holden talking to William Harrigan through a screen of flowers, in close-up her head is seen floating above the blossoms. In a strange way this can be juxtaposed with a later scene where Claude Rains is seen running around his room with his head invisible. And this eccentricity runs to the acting as well. In one sense all of the actors save Travers give over-the-top performances, with O’Conner seemingly being paid by the scream. Holden’s performance, in particular, seems rather stilted with phony emotion. But then that’s part of the charm in watching a James Whale production.

Henry Travers, who would be typecast himself after his iconic performance in It’s a Wonderful Life as the angel Clarence, was a solid character actor prior to that, enhancing films as diverse as the western Dodge City and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. After his outing with Capra he only did four more films. Harrigan had a long career playing heavies, and much of Whale’s stock company makes appearances as well, from E.E. Clive and Dwight Frye, to John Carradine and Forrester Harvey. The great composter Heinz Roemheld provides the distinctive opening theme and a spare score, while John Fulton does an admirable job with the special effects, from props on wires like the fire log and books, to the invisibility of Rains with black covering and double exposures. Whatever flaws the picture may have, it is still miles beyond anything similar from that same year, with the exception of King Kong, and this makes The Invisible Man a classic in every sense of the word.

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