A man, his head wrapped in bandages, pulls his nose off, plops it upon the table - “There’s a souvenir for you!”; he pulls his shaded glasses away from two holes peering into the hollow dome of his bandaged head; and with the unraveling of “The Invisible Man”, brooms fly about, bicycles ride themselves, hats jump off from the scalps of old men, and trousers skip along the road, prompting a terrified rustic to flee for her life.
James Whale’s 1933 film is fantastically spry horror/science fiction, full of airy mischief, wit and impish surprise. Lab assistant Jack Griffin (voiced by Claude Rains), after having literally disappeared, retreats into the English countryside to get his color back, although his drug-induced sense of power soon suggests a way to get the world to “grovel at the feet” of a poor chemist.
Although based upon the H.G. Well’s novel, the tale finds arguably, in a motion picture, the perfect medium to visualize things that aren’t there. We see pajama bottoms walking about, cigarettes stuck and smoking in the air: the little, quirky habits that Whale includes to develop his characters are used to excellent effect here, and give the fantasy a more intimate validity. The film also prompts all sorts of interesting questions, what one would do if one were invisible (frighten the pestering landlady, or cause cash drawers to sail out of the bank), what peculiar difficulties might be involved when invisible (hiding food digestion, or walking up and down staircases without being able to see your feet), and what one could do to catch someone who was invisible (put wet tar on the roads, or wait for it to get cold and watch for his breath).
Whale also succeeds in making an unseen man an engaging presence. The “face” of gauze wrapping Griffin wears to assume a visible form is surprisingly personable, an insolent, pointed mask with shaded glasses on, and, with glasses off, a sadly reflective one with narrow, slightly upturned eye-holes. Add to that Claude Rains’ roaring, growling, gleeful, and so suddenly tranquil voice, those rhapsodic arias, and the result is a man torturing and tortured, brilliant, at moments calm and reflective, at others flushed with a hot if temporal madness.
The humor is often broad (with various tavern eccentrics, not to mention innkeeper Una O’Connor’s shrieks and stiffened, crazy fingers); it’s also frequently clever, and disturbingly laconic, as a bemused Griffin lists his plans for social reform : “We'll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. We may even wreck a train or two…” The film, much of the time, does play like a sinister comedy, although its tone become less ironic, more serious towards the end.
The camera work behind the invisibility effects is marvelous, even by present standards. The more technically involved processes (worked out by John P. Fulton) are superbly executed, but even simple effects (clothes and books floating about on strings) are carried off, so to speak, due to careful prop handling, scene framing, and timing, which gives the sequences a devilish spontaneity.
Claude Rains, as mentioned, is enjoyably flamboyant, but Gloria Stuart, as Griffin’s sweetheart, is single-notedly weepy, and after her reunion with her bandaged-up beau (one of the film’s dramatic highpoints, where his tender affection is gradually broken in with maniacal ranting), she really doesn’t figure much until the closing scene (Henry Travers, as her father, is genially serviceable). William Harrigan is good as a sneaky little lab assistant trying to grab Griffin’s sweetheart, but is forced to become her boyfriend’s accomplice instead (Harrigan’s acting, stilted or overheated at times, still seems somehow to suit the character). Una O’Connor is hilariously annoying as she beaks her way into Griffin’s business (nothing to see), and E.E. Clive, as a languid local policeman, with big mustache and pursed lips, is amusing with his less-than-inspiring authority.
So, along with its exciting effects, the film is an intriguing study, at times humorous, at other times grimly solemn, of the consequences of a man losing himself in unlimited freedom, his idealistic visions become sadistic self-indulgence, as well as the kind of paranoia produced in the hunt for a man who, when not in sight, is everywhere. It’s one of the v ry best of the Univ rs l ho ror films, as “T e I vi ib e Man” expl res the v nish ng pos ibilities, so th t what s l ft out is bet
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