Universal fell back on a time-honored horror masterpiece, bringing H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1933) to life, starring the inimitable Claude Rains. But Wells’ nightmarish terror presented something of a challenge in that its star was never to be seen. Instead, special effects trickery would create the illusion of an absence, while Rains played virtually all his scenes wrapped in a swath of bandages and dark goggles. However, Universal knew what it was doing when it cast Rains; an instantly recognizable voice infused with a mellifluous sincerity capable of pulling off the seemingly impossible feat of making an audience care for someone who ‘visually’ – at least – is not present. As directed by James Whale, The Invisible Man is really part tragedy/part horror; the tale of a man whose all-consuming passion to tap into the unknown sciences destroys his own chances at earthly happiness and, ultimately, corrupts his brilliant mind. And Rains gives us this wounded genius with more than a modicum of empathy even as his intellect succumbs to madness.
Claude Rains had not been the first choice for the part, but he proved the only choice in the final analysis, after Karloff, Chester Morris and Colin Clive all turned it down first. Rains is Dr. Jack Griffin, a reclusive stranger newly arrived in a tiny English hamlet. His presence startles innkeeper, Mr. Hall (Forrest Harvey) and his wife (Una O’Connor); enough for Hall to order him out of his establishment. But when the police arrive, Griffin disrobes to reveal he is, in fact, invisible. Tearing off into the night, Griffin is identified only by his hysterical cackle. This continues to terrorize the town. Soon, however, Griffin will turn to the dark side of his lesser self – the mad scientist, determined to destroy the world rather than save it from the oblivion of war. Eventually the town comes to know Griffin from Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart) who is desperately in love with him...or rather, the man he used to be. The good doctor had been experimenting with ‘monocane’; a dangerous drug that had rendered another test subject - Griffin’s dog – invisible, but insane. Naturally, Flora’s father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) is most concerned, even more so when Griffin forces Cranley’s assistant, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) to become his cohort in a plot to take over the world.
Kemp attempts to alert the authorities. But, after Griffin overhears a police officer declaring the whole thing to be a colossal hoax, he decides to murder him simply to prove otherwise. Later, Kemp telephones Cranley who brings Flora with him to subdue Griffin from committing more murders. The plan backfires, and Griffin derails a train, killing many. In retaliation, the police offer a reward to anyone who can devise a plan to capture Griffin. The chief detective (Dudley Digges) uses Kemp as bait to lure Griffin out of hiding. He dresses Kemp in an officer’s uniform and orders him to drive his car away from his house. But once the vehicle is out of range, Griffin reveals he has been hiding in the backseat all along and helps steer the car and Kemp over the edge of a cliff. Seeking shelter inside a nearby barn one snowy night, Griffin is ‘found’ by a farmer who just happens to notice his hay stack is ‘snoring’. The police arrive and mortally wound Griffin. With Flora at his bedside Griffin admits his experiments were evil and self-destructive; his body gradually re-materializing as he slowly expires.
The Invisible Man is a provocative tale, tapping into man's common desire to be autonomous in society: to be able to act exactly as he pleases without fear of reprisals. But R.C. Sherriff’s screenplay (with unaccredited assists from Preston Sturges and Philip Wylie) intelligently grapples with the psychological ramifications of this fantastic fiction. The debate is age old. How do we know ourselves if not by the reflection we see of ourselves in a mirror – our very being and sense of self identification wrapped up in this visual context we can only know second-hand? Remember, a reflection is the reverse image of what actually is; ergo, even what we witness in a mirror is not entirely the truth of ourselves. Nevertheless, it’s what we identify with as our very essence of being. For Dr. Griffin, the absence of this tangible façade is enough to drive him crazy. He reacts as he never would have under normal circumstances, becoming power drunk on his own invisibility. In essence, Griffith’s sense of freedom is what gradually warps his sanity with a superiority complex.
Claude Rains delivers a knockout performance herein. An actor who graced many a Warner Bros. melodrama throughout the 1940’s, Rains is a superior presence on the screen – holding his own even when he is all but shielded from the camera’s view by the cosmetic trickery of rotoscoping. Rains, who suffered horribly from a speech impediment (an inability to pronounce his ‘R’s’) early on in his career, overcame this failing and later claimed that being gassed in WWI resulted in his voice acquiring its trademark silky smoothness, forever after trademarked as the epitome of suave sophistication. A diminutive man, physically speaking, Rains 'on camera' presence was never anything less than magnetic. Today, he remains much beloved by movie fans, most readily identified and admired as the oily prefect of police, Louis Renault in Casablanca (1942). In The Invisible Man, Rains is very much on his way in building a career from playing unique characters; his sophisticate’s air and minor pomp easily concocting a towering figure out of this transparent sci-fi experiment gone horribly awry.
The movie is also blessed to have Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers in supporting roles. Every studio had its own stock company of ‘character actors’ during its heyday. But Universal’s seems particularly adept at achieving a high-minded believability, particularly when dealing with the supernatural – a subject easily capable of degenerating into rank bad taste and even more deadly laughter elicited from an audience, who are supposed to be utterly paralyzed with fear as they sit in the dark. The Invisible Man achieves its modicum of looming disaster primarily because of Rains. He builds on the gradual mental deterioration of his character, a sort of dramatic unraveling more startling even than the iconic moment when, to prove his superiority over the common man, Griffin unfurls his bandages before a startled gathering to expose the nothingness underneath. The Invisible Man is top drawer entertainment; a real bone-chiller with exemplary production values and a peerless performance by its star.
Let the repackaging begin…again! Universal Home Video re-parcels off its singles from its very comprehensive Classic Monsters Collection. This disc is virtually identical to the one included in that box set. The Invisible Man has never looked better. Universal has done more than ‘clean up’ the visuals; they have resurrected this visual masterpiece from home video oblivion. The results are astounding, with film grain very natural and fine details abounding even during the darkest scenes. There are still age-related artifacts to consider. Also, the rotoscoping is quite obvious, though never distracting. Nevertheless, the B&W image reveals all of the subtleties in Arthur Edeson’s dark and brooding cinematography. Really good stuff here, so enjoy.
The audio is DTS mono. While there’s still a modicum of hiss during quiescent scenes, there’s really nothing to complain about. Universal’s rather scant on extras. We get a comprehensive audio commentary and a fantastic featurette that delves deeply into the making of the movie. But that’s about it. I would have loved a featurette on Claude Rains. Personally, I think the man is owed his own 2 hr. biography special – but that’s just me. The only thing Universal could have done to improve their prospects would have been to feature all of these extras in hi-def. No soap. They’re still 720i. Oh well, you can’t have everything. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)