The Invisible Man (1933)

*. One of the all-time great movie entrances, no less great for James Whale repeating the staggered jump cuts he used to introduce the monster in Frankenstein, or for having since become a cliché (the noisy, boisterous pub falling into silence at the sudden appearance of the stranger). I wonder if the low angle (which is used a lot throughout the movie) was partly to make up for the fact that Claude Rains was only 5′ 6″.
*. It’s sort-of based on the famous novel by H. G. Wells, but the script is very much a film adaptation. The changes are instructive and I want to look at a couple of them in depth.
*. In the first place there is the method by which Griffin turns himself invisible. This is done through a process involving a generator in the book but in the movie it’s a drug that goes by the name of monocaine. Was this a nod to cocaine? Apparently it doesn’t just turn one invisible but drives one mad as well, turning Griffin into a coked-up antihero.
*. Why bother with this change? Perhaps for the tie-in to drug use. But it also disposes of the idea, first mooted in Plato’s Republic in his telling of the myth of the Ring of Gyges, that anyone with such power would naturally live a vicious life (robbing, raping, killing). It’s a bleak statement on man’s naturally depraved state. We would all be so evil if we could commit our crimes free of any consequences. Was that a message Universal didn’t want to go near? Better to blame it on the drugs.
*. The second big change was the introduction of a love interest in the form of Flora (Gloria Stuart). There’s no such character in the novel, and she’s shoehorned into the plot so crudely here that Griffin is actually surprised when he hears her name (“I’d forgotten her . . .”). Then he has to tell her that he actually did it all for her, which is clearly bullshit, so that he can finally die beneath her loving gaze. Just because that’s what women are for.
*. It’s interesting how all of these Universal horrors kept coming back to the idea of a love triangle and sexual rivalry. In Dracula there was the count trying to steal Mina (which was at least already in the novel). In Frankenstein they had Victor mooning over Elizabeth. It’s also there in many version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, and even the Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the Gill-man wants to take the hero’s girlfriend. Griffin-Flora-Kemp are just another instance of the same dynamic. I wonder what there was about this particular formula (as opposed to just having a female love interest) that Universal found so attractive.
*. Sticking with this triangle for just a moment, I wonder why Kemp (William Harrigan) is portrayed as such an unsympathetic figure. He seems to behave decently and tries to do the right thing most of the time, but is dispatched most cruelly. In the book he is the closest thing to a hero. But then in the book he isn’t challenging Griffin for the affections of a Flora.
*. James Whale was finally starting to cut loose after doing Frankenstein in a fairly restrained manner. Then he’d done The Old Dark House, and with this film and Bride of Frankenstein he was clearly sending up the genre. It’s hard to say how seriously we can take the Invisible Man’s actions. At times his “reign of terror” seems truly awful (like sending the train off the rails), but just as often he seems content to play the merry prankster.
*. Performances like Una O’Connor’s always walk a fine line. One that I think she goes over here. She really needed to dial it down a bit, but I think Whale (who was a fan) might have been encouraging her to turn it up. According to Rudy Boehlmer’s DVD commentary Whale didn’t have any problem with her “screech repertoire,” but while I like her in Bride of Frankenstein I think she’s really annoying in this movie.
*. A star is born in Claude Rains, whose first film this basically was (his actual first film, Build Thy House, is a now lost silent). He wasn’t the first choice, as Whale wanted either Boris Karloff or Colin Clive. I think Clive might have worked just as well, though Rains is wonderful.
*. The real star of the film though, and I say this even after acknowledging Whale and Rains, is John P. Fulton, who did the special, and painstakingly created, visual effects. Even nearly a hundred years later I’m in awe of what he achieved in his rendering of the Invisible Man. I’m not sure some of the effects were being done that much better in the 2020 reboot, though in Hollow Man (2000) they were pretty spectacular.
*. The upshot is that this is another great, if uneven, Universal horror from its golden age. The character of the Invisible Man himself would go on to have a varied career indeed, ranging from monster to victim to comic figure to superhero. Like the blank slate he (or she) literally was, much could be projected upon him. I don’t think he was ever in a better movie than this one though.

2 thoughts on “The Invisible Man (1933)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I do like this one. You make a good point about coke, which was a big deal at the time, and a drug that many people in Hollywood knew about, and understood the potential of. The idea that Griffin’s madness is awakened by his drug use makes this play better than some of the other Universal films, and the trick effects are cool here…

    Reply

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