Today’s cinema adventure: The Invisible Man, the 1933 feature based on H.G. Wells’ story about a well-meaning scientist who discovers the secret of invisibility only to be driven to madness by its side-effects. Produced at the height of Universal Studios’ early-thirties cycle of horror films, it established a familiar screen icon in the form of its bandage-wrapped title character, and is still considered one of top classics of the “monster movie” genre. Its revered status is mostly due to director James Whale (the genius responsible for the first two Frankenstein movies), who combines a flair derived from his theatrical background with a keen cinematic style; his meticulously choreographed scenes are captured with inventive camera angles and expressionistic lighting, and his innovative techniques of visual storytelling- clever segues and montages, the savvy use of special effects to enhance his story rather than to dominate it- are a bittersweet testament to the brilliance that might have led to a long and remarkable filmmaking career had his distinctive artistic sensibilities not put him at odds with the Hollywood establishment and resulted in his early retirement from the industry. Those sensibilities are on full display here: his arch, campy style results in a film ripe with macabre humor, and one which feels decidedly subversive in its gleefully ironic portrayal of a stodgy community disrupted from within by willful anarchy. Nevertheless, despite a tone which could almost be described as self-mocking, the story never loses its dark undercurrent of unsettling horror- not the horror of violence and mayhem (though there is a fair share of that), but the horror of that unseen menace within the human psyche- the potential for corruption and dehumanization that can transform even the gentlest soul into a monster capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty. This balance between the wacky and the weird is achieved not only by the director’s considerable gift, but hinges also on a star-making performance in the title role by Claude Rains, who manages to walk the precarious line between histrionic mania and subtle sincerity, conveying perfectly the journey of a man struggling to hold onto himself even as he disappears into ego-driven insanity, and successfully holding audience sympathy even as he plots the most horrific acts of terror and revenge. It is a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that his face remains hidden until the final moments of the film, and which deservedly led to a career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific and well-loved character actors. The rest of the primary cast is effective enough, considering the prosaic acting styles of the era; notable more for their later accomplishments are Henry Travers (who went on to become everybody’s favorite guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) and Gloria Stuart (who, 60 years later, became the oldest Oscar-nominated performer in history for her role in Titanic). Though most of the supporting players come off as merely adequate, however, the army of background actors are a delight- an array of craggy, comical English faces headed by the incomparable Una O’Connor as a shrill hostess whose encounter with the mysterious stranger at her inn sets the comically creepy tone for the entire film. R.C. Sheriff’s screenplay, though it features more than a little stodgy dialogue, captures the essence of Wells’ novel- particularly its allegorical exploration of the destructive effects of drug addiction- while expanding details of character and plot and building the foundation for Whale’s subtly skewed interpretation. The technical elements of the film are as top-notch as one would expect from a prestige production like this: the scenic design blends an art-deco flavor with the rich detail of its various English settings, the cinematography (by the great Arthur Edeson) is a sublime example of the near-forgotten beauty and power of black-and-white film, and the special effects (supervised by John Fulton), which were advanced for their time, are still fairly impressive for the most part. Of course, for today’s average audience, The Invisible Man may bear the stigma of being dated, creaky and far too tame for modern tastes; it may also suffer mildly from its abrupt and somewhat anti-climactic resolution. Even the most jaded viewers, however, will likely be drawn in by the considerable charm of a movie that inspires them to laugh out loud as they contemplate the deeper, darker themes which bubble within it like the test tubes in a mad scientist’s arcane lab.
I watched this movie recently for the first time since I was a kid. Claude Raines was phenomenal, and the imagery was often stunning. One plot point I had a hard time getting past: Being invisible would indeed be a powerful weapon, as long as no one knows you can do it. Once that secret’s out (and it’s out almost immediately) you’re a naked guy in a dark room.
I think there’s some play in this movie with the idea that he’s invisible but he wants to be noticed- to be acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with. Like someone who is insecure and feels insignificant so they overcompensate by becoming an egomaniac or a bully… which of course, leads to their downfall through their own arrogance, just like in the movie. But you’re right, from a practical level- the only way being invisible really has any advantages is if it’s a total secret.