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Among the many vintage horror films released by Universal Studios in the 1930's, James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) still packs a punch today. It is a shining example of fantastic thrills filled with quotable dialogue and unexpected humor and shocks, all delivered with great mood and economy. The film is based on H.G. Wells' novel of the same name and deals with Griffin, a scientist who is ultimately driven power-hungry and mad by the side effects of the invisibility serum he both invents and ingests. Just as Whale made a star of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931), Claude Rains was also abruptly put in the spotlight but, as he is only glimpsed for a few seconds over the course of the film, this fame came almost entirely from the powerful performance of his voice alone. The success of The Invisible Man would launch a sequel, a short-lived series, and culminated (like Frankenstein) in a confrontation with Abbott and Costello in the late forties. But The Invisible Man lives on in varied incarnations. It might be Chevy Chase in John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), or Kevin Bacon in Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (2000), to name just a few ways in which the legacy continues.
Looking back on the original The Invisible Man, it's hard not to think that casting providence blessed the entire production. In James Whale: A Biography, Mark Gatiss notes that H.G. Wells was particularly fond of Una O'Connor's portrayal of the shrieking Mrs. Hall. This certainly must have helped overcome some of Wells' original misgivings with the liberty taken by the film of drugs that make the protagonist a lunatic (to which Whale responded by saying "only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible in the first place!"). Keen eyes will also note John Carradine as the "informer" and Dwight Frye in the role of reporter - a far cry from his insect-eating Renfield in Dracula (1931) or the hunchbacked dwarf who switches the brains in Whale's previous film, Frankenstein. There's also another connection to that film: Boris Karloff had originally been slated for the role of Griffin but walked out after producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. pressed him one too many times for cuts in his contractual pay. This was just fine with Whale who was dead-set against Karloff anyway, feeling Karloff's followers would expect a ghoulish monster film rather than an extraordinary tale of a scientist trying to escape his fate. From the beginning, Whale wanted Claude Rains, whom he knew from earlier years as a respected teacher at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art (Charles Laughton was one of his students). Laemmle, however, didn't want to risk the bank on an unknown actor, so Whale tried to placate him by suggesting Colin Clive, and they agreed. But, as author James Curtis notes in his book on James Whale, the director "prevailed upon Clive to decline the offer, as he was returning to Britain anyway. Clive would have remained to play the part had Whale actually needed him, but his plan was simply to create a demand for Rains." After The Invisible Man, Rains' career took off and he would go on to be nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and Notorious (1946).
The technical achievements by John P. Fulton on The Invisible Man have often been credited for the film's success. Aside from elaborate stop motions, double exposures, and masked negatives there was a need to dress Rains in black velvet underneath the bandages and clothes and shoot against a black velvet background. But these shocking visual effects were also combined with simpler, more visceral shocks, such as when a woman's baby carriage (complete with baby) gets knocked over or when Griffin batters a policeman to death with a stool. This harsh tone was balanced by dark humor and great dialogue. Not surprisingly, Whale came to Hollywood from England (where he was originally a cartoonist, stage designer, and dialogue director) to work on film dialogue, and The Invisible Man provides ample proof of his good ear. Credit should also go to R.C. Sherriff and Philip Wylie's screenplay. Of interest as a footnote is that these men took over what Whale considered to be an unsatisfactory work by Preston Sturges.
One of The Invisible Man's many charms is in how much thought went into various details surrounding the act of being invisible. Griffin explains some of the problems to his condition, such as how he has to avoid exposure after meals while his body digests the food, or how he has to be clean to avoid dirt outlines, or keep out of rain and fog where his outline could be traced. Despite all this, there is one odd lapse in judgment by the filmmakers; when the invisible man walks on the snow and we should see the impressions of his bare feet, we instead see normal footprints that would require invisible shoes. This is akin to John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man when we see the invisible man smoking. This provides a dramatic illustration to quit the habit, but it's goofed when we see how the smoke stays inhaled even while the invisible man speaks. Such are the pitfalls of filming the fantastic.
Anyone who has difficulty imagining the impact of The Invisible Man on its original audience need not go too far to revisit a similar echo of its effect today. Just stroll over to your neighborhood multiplex and watch Joel Schumacher's current box office smash Phone Booth (2003). Just as Claude Rains' disembodied voice mesmerized audiences almost seventy years ago, Kiefer Sutherland's disembodied voice in Phone Booth similarly grips viewers in the power of its delivery and menacing inflection. And, in both films, the killer's face is glimpsed for only a brief moment near the end. The setting and circumstances may have changed, but there's obviously still something incredibly scary about being threatened by someone whom we cannot see, and who thrills in having the power of life and death over terrorized individuals.
Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.
Director: James Whale
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff, based on a novel by H.G. Wells
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: Ted J. Kent
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Paul Dupont, W. Franke Harling, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Gloria Stuart (Flora Cranley), William Harrigan (Dr. Kemp), Henry Travers (Dr. Cranley), Una O'Connor (Jenny Hall), Forrester Harvey (Bill Hall).
BW-72m. Closed captioning.
by Pablo Kjolseth