The Invisible Man (1933)


Thinking about what invisibility would actually entail brings up a lot of interesting dilemmas, a number of which, thanks to the script by R.C. Sheriff for this 1933 adaptation of the H. G. Wells's  novel, are covered in the course of The Invisible Man.  Most of them concern ways in which his invisibility could fail, such as soot (a major problem in many factory and mining towns at the time this movie was made) making his outline visible, as well as rain, snow or fog.  Even something as small as dirt on the soles of his feet.  He also mentions the need to wait an hour after eating for the food to disappear, which makes me think that most likely the drugs that make him invisible alter the food at some point, otherwise, the whole process of making its way through the intestinal tract would be visible for a good part of the day.  Then there's the acts of urination and defecation - presumably the latter becoming visible at some point after leaving the body. 

That any thought at all - and a good portion of this is not stuff that would be mentioned in a movie in 1933, despite it being before the Hays Code - was put into this belies the quality of The Invisible Man.  In fact, when we first meet Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), he's already invisible.  His problem is that, although he achieved his goal, he never thought of how to reverse the procedure.  Because of that he seeks an inn in the small village of Iping but, when the proprietress Jenny (Una O'Connor) prods her husband Herbert (Forrester Harvey) into demanding the rent, Griffin's frustration with his situation - as well as madness caused by one of the ingredients in his formula - leads to an assault on Mr. Hall and a series of events that, though at first dismissed as a hoax, lead to a manhunt once a police inspector is murdered.

Griffin returns to Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), his former colleague, who has been making moves on Griffin's fiancĂ© Flora (Gloria Stuart) since Griffin's disappearance.  Griffin suggests that Kemp join him as his partner in creating a reign of terror, while Kemp first informs their employer Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), who brings Flora to meet with Griffin.  Unfortunately, Kemp has also called the police, which leads Griffin to accelerate his plans. 

The Invisible Man has many true horror elements, including that of a killer that can be anywhere at once, as well as one amoral enough to commit mass murder.  What largely seems to be pranks in the beginning escalates quickly, as Griffin is already quite insane when he first appears at the inn in Iping. It's well-shot by James Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson, further breaking from the static, stage-play style of that seemed constrain Whale in The Old Dark House and Frankenstein.  Whale always seemed to want to keep the camera in motion as much as the technology allowed, and in a short few years of sound film it had improved immensely. 

One of the more out of the ordinary things about The Invisible Man is that its star, Claude Rains, is not seen through the majority of the film.  So much is done these days to assuage the egos of actors and make sure their face is recognizable even in ridiculous situations where the people they are portraying would naturally wear face coverings for simple safety or survival.  That doesn't mean Rains isn't in the film.  Instead, he was dressed head to toe in black velvet and filmed before a velvet background, and then matted into the places where invisibility was needed.  Still, largely, the character is played by voice and pantomime, as the only times Jack Griffin is actually seen until the end is under heavy clothing and bandages.  We don't even get a portrait or photograph of him the whole time. 

What is also great about Rains in the role is that, though a serious stage actor, he brings quite a bit of comedy to the proceedings.  In many ways, The Invisible Man is one of the first horror-comedies.  It's not a spoof like the later Abbott and Costello films, but rather a horror with comedy elements along the lines of An American Werewolf in London.  Whale and Rains embrace the ridiculousness of the idea of a man turning himself invisible, along with the trouble one could cause if it could be done in reality.  The only drawback is that Whale has Una O'Connor spend most of her time screaming, which barely manages to balance the line between hilarious and excruciating. 

In a technical manner, the effects still work after all this time.  The way they made Jack Griffin invisible is not too dissimilar from modern greenscreen techniques, and all sorts of other tricks are techniques are used to move things around and make it appear as if he is interacting with them.  I don't know if William Harrington had to, at times, mime speaking with someone that he couldn't see, but he does a good job if he did.  Gloria Stuart, unfortunately, is rather superfluous as the love interest, kind of shoehorned in because of the normal Hollywood pattern.  

The Invisible Man remains one of the best films by James Whale, as well as one of the cornerstones of Universal's monster menagerie.  Given what this movie is it is probably not a surprise that, until the 2020 remake, attempts to bring an invisible man plot back to the big screen were famously more lighthearted comedy than true horror with the one that did, 2000's Hollow Man, being a major fumble of the premise.  As far as H. G. Wells's original idea, this is the only film of all of them that at least attempted to follow the novel, which would be interesting to see attempted again, separated for the more prurient and voyeuristic aspects that would tempt directors, as well as from modern politics as well. 

The Invisible Man (1933)
Time: 71 minutes
Starring: Claude Rains, William Harrington, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers
Director: James Whale

 

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