Monday, 2 November 2009

The Invisible Man (USA, 1933)

Though not as famous as his other 1930s classics, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s The Invisible Man showcases the same inspired juxtaposition of the hilarious and the horrific that makes them so outstanding. Like them (and like the other great Universal monster movies, such as Tod Browning’s Dracula, with Bela Lugosi as the iconic count, and Karl Freund’s The Mummy starring Boris Karloff) The Invisible Man was so cleverly designed, and so assuredly executed, that it has been influential ever since.

It’s a short, lean film and its plot is pleasingly brisk. Claude Rains, who had previously starred in one silent film, in which he of course couldn’t be heard, here makes his debut in a sound film in which he can’t be seen. His haughty and ultimately homicidal Dr. Jack Griffin is already invisible when we meet him – wrapped in bandages and an overcoat, and sporting dark glasses and a natty fake nose – and so there is no clumsy and long-winded exposition to stall the picture while it explains how he came to be such a transparent Trevor.

Griffin checks into an out-of-the-way English inn in the hope it will provide the peace and privacy that will allow him to reverse the effects of his recently perfected disappearing serum – but, naturally, it does not. Instead, perpetually pestered by the locals (including Una O’Connor in a cracking turn as his hysterically shrieking landlady), he eventually unveils himself. The first time he unwinds his bandages and discards his clothing to reveal nothing underneath is one of the finest scenes in sci-fi.

Unlike any other special effects in cinema, those in this film are essentially unsurpassable: no-one will ever be more invisible than The Invisible Man’s invisible man. So, while The Wolf Man’s transformations look less impressive with every new generation of werewolf films, and while Frankenstein’s monster make-up becomes creakier with every cinematic reimagining of Mary Shelley’s story, those effects on show here remain as effective – though admittedly not as astounding – as they were upon the film’s release. (What’s more, when Invisible Man-style SFX are upgraded with new graphics technology, as they were in 2000’s Hollow Man, the visuals – by showing us water clinging to his face, or organs working inside his body – serve only to make the invisible character more visible, and thus they are often self-defeating.)

Having cemented himself as the movies’ most committed naturist (no major studio film has ever featured so much male nudity as this one), Griffin eschews the opportunity to become the world’s best burglar, most secret secret agent, or the Pele of peeping Toms and runs about bashing people, stealing bicycles and tweaking policemen’s noses before making the sinister decision to start a killing spree as a prelude to exploiting his powers for the purposes of world domination. (He dreams of selling his secret to whichever nation will pay the most for the chance to unleash invisible armies upon the world.)

From here until its tense and intelligent end, the film is a manhunt drama, with various officials and investigators attempting to apprehend the un-spottable scientist as he becomes increasingly insane and ever more murderous. Some ingeniously witty scriptwriting (by R.C. Sherriff) has the audience’s every idea about how to catch an invisible fugitive (spraying ink about, waiting until it is cold enough to see his breath, slapping wet tar on every roadway…) shouted down as idiotic when it is suggested by someone onscreen, and so we really are intrigued by just how the police could catch Griffin and genuinely wonder if they will.

But while the screenplay and special effects are responsible for much of the film’s enduring appeal, the true powers behind its classic status are Rains and Whale. Giving one of film’s greatest exhibitions of vocal acting, Rains – who invests Griffin’s every word with a commanding and condescending disregard for everything in the world except his genius – manages to steal every scene he is in, despite not actually being in any of them. Whale, meanwhile, underlines what Frankenstein had proved two years before and its sequel would prove again two years later: that there is no cinematic mix as potent as that of the comic and the macabre, and no one with a better command of it than he. The Invisible Man is a masterpiece and deserves to be revisited as often as any Hollywood horror film.

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