The Wolf Man (1941)


*. This wasn’t the first werewolf movie — that honour goes to Werewolf of London — but The Wolf Man basically invented the genre. What makes this strange is that it seems to have happened almost by accident.
*. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak usually gets most of the credit, but the final script is actually a long way from what he wrote.


*. What Siodmak intended, in the first place, was a psychological thriller, with the Wolf Man being, perhaps, the protagonist’s unleashed id. It would basically be a furrier version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and it may be relevant in this regard that the Spencer Tracy version of that classic tale came out the same year as this film. On the DVD commentary Tom Weaver even suggests that the montage hallucination here was inspired by Tracy’s fevered erotic dreams.
*. Apparently Siodmak had studied Freud, but this Freudian “wolf man” was going to have to wait for Val Lewton to adapt the story in Cat People. Universal wasn’t interested in ambiguity; they wanted a monster.


*. So the script was changed at the last minute. Weaver says it was rewritten only a couple of weeks before shooting started. This is amazing, but given the assembly-line nature of the studio system, not impossible.
*. Another big change to the script was making the Lon Chaney Jr. character the son of Claude Rains. Originally he was to be an unrelated American named Larry Gill.
*. This leads to a lot of incongruities. Weaver remarks how Rains and Chaney look like Mutt and Jeff, which makes him wonder what Mrs. Talbot looked like. For what it’s worth, Chaney was 6’2″ and Rains 5’6″. I’ve known bigger generational variations.
*. Chaney’s lack of a British accent is explained by his being raised in the U.S. But I wonder if they needed to do that. Because where is this movie set, anyway?
*. Siodmak’s script was set in Wales, and if you read much about the film you’ll often here the Welsh setting mentioned. But all references to Wales were cut. So are we in Wales? You’ll have to wait for the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, to find out. (Spoiler: Yes. The town’s name is even given as Llanwelly and the revived Larry Talbot is taken to a hospital in Cardiff.)
*. In one of the DVD supplements Jan-Christopher Horak shrugs the question of location off, saying the setting is Neverland, a hodgepodge of times and places all shot on Universal’s back lot. David J. Skal: “The Wolf Man, released in 1941, was yet another Hollywood nightmare of a geographically indeterminate ‘Europe’ anxiously blurring together elements of America, England, and the Continent, rather as the Great War had done literally, and the new war was in the process of doing all over again. The Europe of American horror movies was a nearly surreal pastiche of accents, architecture, and costumes, like the scrambled impressions of a soldier/tourist on a whirlwind tour of duty.”


*. There were legends Siodmak could draw on, but no clear literary precedent, as with Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula. In that respect Siodmak’s role may be thought of as similar to Romero’s in reinventing the zombie not just as a movie monster but as a genre and a mythology. That said, a lot of the mythology here had limited impact. That awful poem kept getting recited through the next few movies, but was then (thankfully) dropped. And the pentacle was never very important again. It shows up painted on the wall of the tavern in An American Werewolf in London, but that movie was full of arcane nods.
*. Not that the pentacle means very much here. The ramshackle plot is a ball of loose ends, and the pentacle is just part of it. Of what use is the charm Maleva gives Talbot, for example? He gives it to Gwen but she doesn’t wear it and we never see it again. (Originally it was melted down to make a silver bullet that kills Talbot, but that was another script casualty.) Then there’s the great moment when Talbot shows the pentagram on his chest and his father replies “That scar could be made by almost any animal.” Really? Name one, Claude.
*. We start off with some odd opening credits, probably because the studio “rightfully took a lot of pride in the cast” (Weaver). The only other horror movie Universal did this for was The Black Cat.


*. I guess they were proud of the cast, but for me the credits draw attention to how extraneous so many of these characters are. What role do Warren William and Ralph Bellamy (the doctor and the colonel, respectively) play in this movie? They don’t really have any purpose.
*. I love that observatory set, and wish they’d been able to work in more of it. It looks like it’s just waiting for Méliès’ scientists to arrive and start planning their Trip to the Moon. It also introduces an early example of voyeurism into the film. It’s odd that Gwen’s not creeped out more when she finds out that Larry has been spying on her in her bedroom. And this is later echoed when Talbot tells Maleva that he remembers seeing her in the crypt, which is when he was spying on her and she didn’t know he was there. But she says nothing of it.
*. Gwen’s indifference to being spied on is akin to her rather slack attitude toward her engagement. Should she really be going out on dates with Larry?
*. I wonder how much of the effectiveness of these Universal horrors was due to their short running times. The Wolf Man is only 70 minutes, which is the same as Dracula and Frankenstein.


*. It’s a truism that the main interest in any werewolf movie is in the transformation scene. And it has to be said that the special effects and make-up by the legendary Jack Pierce has dated badly here. The Wolf Man isn’t very impressive (as some contemporary reviewers also thought), and there is only the one full transformation shot, and that’s of the Wolf Man’s hairy feet (the reverse transformation at the very end has a couple of cuts so I’m not counting it).


*. Chaney has a soft, vulnerable face and apparently liked to cry in movies. That’s why he starts to blubber in the crypt scene even though it doesn’t really make any sense. But it was important for him that Talbot be a sympathetic character. Later werewolves would tend to drift away from this and go more to the mad-dog side.
*. I don’t dislike Chaney, but I’ve never found him to be much of a leading man in any part. He just lacks a certain firmness and never ignites on screen.
*. “Sounds Greek to me.” “It is Greek.” I don’t know if we owe this to Siodmak, but somebody was smiling when they wrote that.
*. There are all kinds of bizarre continuity-style problems, but it’s hard to tell how much of this is because the script was mangled, and how much was due to budget problems. Among the more prominent examples, Lugosi turns into a German Shepherd (named Moose, who is still wearing a collar in his big scene), but Chaney turns into a Wolf Man. Also, the Wolf Man changes into different clothes when he transforms (shirt and pants). Weaver says, in defence of the latter, that if you’re willing to believe he can change into a wolf you’ll believe that he can put on a shirt, but this misses the point, as we’re being asked to believe very different things. And how does the Wolf Man get out of his ropes? We don’t even get a cut away to see them lying at the foot of the chair, or any other explanation.
*. Is it a well made movie? I’m not sure. As noted, the script is held together with elastic bands and Krazy Glue. The monster effects are underwhelming. I like the sets for their artificiality, especially that foggy forest on a sound stage, but there’s not much else to commend about the production aside from the score. Even the lighting seems off throughout, especially the shadows and half shadows over actors’ faces that I don’t think was deliberate. Note, for one obvious example, the scene between Rains and Chaney when Chaney is bound to the chair at the end. Why are their eyes in shadow? It just seems awkward.


*. So it may be the case that it’s one of those landmark films that had a big impact and long tail, but that doesn’t really hold up well on re-viewing. I like it well enough, but I think it falls well short of greatness. Now that they’d been properly introduced, however, werewolves were going to be big.


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