Thursday, November 17, 2016
The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man (1933) is one of Universal Studios canonical horror films, part of the cycle of movies that include Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy. James Whale directed the movie and the picture displays his customary grace and aplomb: the movie is brilliantly concise, witty, and casually brutal. The story, derived from the novel by H. G. Wells, is a variant on the Herodotus' ancient tale, the ring of Gyges: a man discovers a potion that makes him invisible. Power over others conferred by invisibility leads the man into crime and, finally, madness. (There seems little doubt that J. R. R. Tolkien had this movie in mind when he invented the character of Gollum, a creature driven into insane egoism as a result of mistaking the curse of invisibility for some kind of sinister blessing.) Whale stages the first half of the film as kind of low, rustic comedy -- a man swathed in bandages from head to toe and wearing dark glasses staggers through a wintry landscape. This is the invisible man wearing the bandages, hat and glasses to give himself an outline. The script starts in media res -- the invisible man is already insane, power-mad, and trapped in his cloak of invisibility: he can't make himself visible. The anti-hero hides at an Inn associated with a pub, a setting that gives Whale an opportunity to use his British character actors for comic relief. The various barflies speculate about why the new tenant is swaddled in bandages while the Innkeeper and his shrewish wife find themselves facing ever more eccentric, and bizarre behavior by their strange guest. In the first unveiling sequence, the invisible man cackling insanely peels off the gauze covering his face; the local constable on patrol remarks "He's all eaten away." This is an understatement to be sure. Ultimately, the invisible man flees the Inn and pub and embarks on a reign of terror -- he blithely strangles police officers or hurls them off cliffs, causes a riot by throwing stolen banknotes onto a busy street, and, then, acting from sheer, unmotivated malice, manipulates railroad switches to trigger a spectacular train-wreck said to kill over a hundred people. Thousand of police pursue the invisible man to no avail. At last, the police use the invisible man's scientific partner, a feckless and cowardly fellow who has betrayed his former friend, as bait. The psychopathic hero easily evades police traps and kills his disloyal partner after first luridly explaining to him the stages of mutilation that will precede his death. The picture ends anticlimactically -- it's cold and the invisible man is naked and, when he takes shelter in a barn, a rustic (the sort of character Shakespeare called "a clown") hears the villain snoring, calls the police, and, when they see the invisible man's footprints marking the snow, gun him down. The dying man is taken to a hospital where he is briefly interviewed by his fiancée, Flora -- she has a thankless role that requires her to do nothing more than fret melodramatically and weep. "I meddled in things men should let alone," the invisible man says, dying. Gradually, we see his skull, then, tendons and muscles covering that skull, and, at last, the handsome and boyish face of Claude Rains -- until the film's final ten seconds, we have not seen him except as a grotesquely bandaged and cloaked figure. Rains doesn't get to act in the movie except through his voice but his performance is effective: he oscillates between suave menace, childish singing and nonsense rhymes, and vicious harangues: he speculates that an army of invisible men could rule the world with an iron fist. Consistently entertaining, the film is not really frightening -- it's more an explication of the dangers posed by exercising an unbridled will to power. The dialogue is funny and the Falstaffian milieu of the tavern and inn, a place frequented by various drunks, greasy scullery maids, and blowsy cops is closely observed. The snowy landscapes are picturesque and invisible man's spree of mass murder is both chilling and not taken too seriously -- the train crash, for instance, is accomplished with beautifully-lit miniature effects: it reminds me of the scene in which King Kong derails the elevated commuter train. In every respect this is a witty, sophisticated and brilliantly realized entertainment.