CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!
Claude Rains reportedly once said that it was Michael Curtiz who showed him what not to do in front of a camera. Having come from the theater, Rains may have had a few exaggerated mannerisms, but that was certainly not a problem in his first American film. Except for the last scene, the actor is mostly covered in bandages and sometimes it isn’t even Rains we’re watching but a double. And then, of course, there’s a few scenes where we can’t see him at all. Anyway, theatrical mannerisms are hardly a problem when the actor is supposed to play an evil lunatic with a menacing cackle.
On a cold, snowy evening in a Sussex hamlet, a mysterious stranger (Rains) arrives at an inn. They’re not used to having guests in the dead of winter, but the stranger whose face is covered by bandages and a pair of goggles demands to have a room. Once he has settled in, the innkeepers discover that the man never lets anyone see his face and that he’s performing strange experiments in his room. After an encounter between the man and the innkeeper’s wife, Jenny Hall (Una O’Connor), she demands that her husband throws him out. But the bandaged man throws the innkeeper down the stairs and when a police constable comes to the scene, the man tries to intimidate him by removing his goggles and bandages, exposing himself as invisible.
He manages to escape and pays a visit to his former lab partner, Kemp (William Harrigan). The obviously deranged man is Jack Griffin, a scientist who accidentally found a way to make himself invisible, and now he needs Kemp to help him become visible again. However, Griffin’s thirst for blood becomes a problem.
A shock to 1930s audiences
Director James Whale was on a roll. Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932) were followed by this, another film that has turned into a horror classic. It won’t frighten anyone now, but the visual effects, on full display when Griffin peels off the bandages for the first time, must have been quite a shock to early 1930s audiences.
Still, it is also obvious that Whale had every intention to keep his viewers not only screaming but laughing (which was true in his preceding film as well). O’Connor provides much comic relief, her first hysterical performance as directed by Whale, and so do some of the other English stereotypes seen in the Sussex village. Not much has changed from the H.G. Wells classic, and fans of Frankenstein will find the story very intriguing because of the similarities. There’s a scientist tampering with powers he should leave alone and he does create a monster, only in this film it turns out to be himself. Villagers alternate between searching for him and running away from him, there’s a fiancée desperately trying to bring her man back to sanity and there’s even a burning building near the end. In true Whale style, the movie is short and very fast-paced, and whenever the invisible man has a little speech meant to portray him as powerful and scary, the director effectively allows him to almost tower over the camera.
There’s very little music, but Whale seems to do all right without it, especially since he’s got Rains’s maniacal laughter as the proper audio accompaniment. Nicely shot in Universal’s studios, although at times one would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps we’re in England after all.
No wonder that this was Rains’s breakthrough performance. So what if his face is only seen for five seconds, his stern, trembling, evil and very British voice (with those rolling R’s) is what made him famous to the crowds. They had plenty of opportunities to know his face in later films.
The Invisible Man 1933-U.S. 71 min. B/W. Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. Directed by James Whale. Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff. Novel: H.G. Wells. Cast: Claude Rains (Jack Griffin), Gloria Stuart (Flora Cranley), Una O’Connor (Jenny Hall), William Harrigan, E.E. Clive, Dudley Digges… Dwight Frye, John Carradine, Walter Brennan.
Trivia: Boris Karloff was allegedly considered for the lead. Followed by The Invisible Man Returns (1940).
Last word: “The laboratory had an odd look. There were all sorts of casts about, in papier-mâché, clay and plaster… They made a cast and nailed me in. Just my head stuck out. They smeared me with Vaseline and then stood off and threw plaster at my head. I thought I was going to die. It was a most alarming operation. Really, I’m afraid I behaved rather badly. I went back again the next day and saw masks and half-masks of my head all over the place.” (Rains, The New York Times)