Classic Film Talk: ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933)

Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk

Today we reminisce about

The Invisible Man (1933)

Directed by James Whale

Cast of Characters:

Claude Rains – Jack Griffin / The Invisible One

Gloria Stuart – Flora Cranley

William Harrington – Dr. Arthur Kemp

Synopsis

“Look, he’s all eaten away”

As the credits appear, we hear intense, yet spooky, music accompanying the opening titles. There is a noticeable howling wind in the background that increases as the camera fades from black. In the middle of a snowstorm coupled with a gusty wind, a heavily clothed man (Rains) is having difficulty in making it through the snow mounds. Seemingly lost in his tracks, he finds a road sign indicating that the town of Iping is not far ahead. He soon happens upon the village and enters the Lion’s Head Inn and pub where lively patrons immediately back away from the mysterious man who, in turn, demands lodging. Despite it not being the season for travellers, the innkeeper’s wife fastidiously prepares quarters for him with a sitting room. When he demands to be brought some food, it is then that we first get an idea of what is troubling this man. Though the woman believes his plight to be a deformation from an accident, further inspection shows that he has no mouth … he is invisible!

We are soon introduced to Flora Cranley (Stuart) and her father, simply known as “Dr.” (Travers). They are discussing the absence of one of the Dr.’s employees, Jack Griffin, who is also Flora’s fiancée. They, along with Griffin’s colleague Dr. Arthur Kemp (Harrington), are concerned by the evidence he left behind in his laboratory which indicates that he has been dabbling in dangerous experimentation. Griffin is The Invisible Man.

A policeman and the innkeeper’s wife

In the meantime, Griffin has failed to pay for his stay at the Inn and is asked to leave by the innkeeper. He becomes enraged and throws the innkeeper down the stairs in a fit of rage, nearly killing him. When a policeman and pub patrons come to Griffin’s room to try and capture him, Griffin disrobes – revealing his invisibility – and proceeds to attack each and every one of them until he escapes. Griffin ends up going to Kemp’s house where he forces him to join forces in being his partner in crime. Later on, when he finds out that Kemp has betrayed his trust, Griffin goes on a killing spree and even further out of his mind.

Dr. Kemp

Can Kemp stop Griffin’s malicious ways? Will the police be able to intervene before more innocent lives are taken? What will come of Flora? So much suspense will simply not disappear into thin air.

Observations

For his first official movie role, Claude Rains is given top billing; in fact, his is the only name that appears above the titles. Interestingly enough, he is referred to as “The Invisible One” in the credits rather than by the name Jack Griffin. Because he was completely covered in a costume during nearly the entire duration of filming, most of his acting had to come through his vocal delivery. His performance is phenomenal and whether clothed or invisible, his presence is immense. Griffin becomes increasingly mad over the course of the film, a notable side effect of the chemicals he ingested. His irritability and explosiveness make him unapproachable but that seems like small potatoes after he snaps and turns to murder. Somehow, this man is able to fool everyone around him and strike fear into them as if he has superpowers.

Dr. Cranley and Flora

The only person to safely escape his wrath under any pretext is Flora. Even after he has already committed murder and has little control over his sanity, he innately becomes kind and loving with her. Though, his love is never enough to make him stop fiddling with dangerous experiments with unknown consequences. Gloria Stuart previously starred in James Whale’s The Old Dark House. She is perfectly lovely in this film although her performance is somewhat hollow. Despite having worked with Whale on multiple productions, she has very little to say about him in her autobiography and stated that she was surprised by the success of her Whale films because at the time they were filmed, they did not seem like anything important. She did not hold many fond memories of working with Rains, calling him on more than one occasion a “big ego” and complaining that he tried to steal the camera from her in several scenes.

The early talkies gave special effects their soul” – film historian Rudy Behlmer

This was an innovative movie at the time thanks to riveting visual effects and it’s safe to say that the ingeniousness is still felt today when watching the film. I spoke briefly about the matte process that was used to film Rains’ scenes in his Actor Spotlight. Essentially, Rains would have to film his “invisible scenes” in a black velvet suit against a black background. Depending on the complexity of the scene, 2-4 different final versions of a scene would be necessary. It was a lot of work for everyone involved.

There are many impressive moments in the film that capture finely executed special effects. When Griffin is speaking with Kemp in his living room, the furniture appears to shift by itself and the cushions of an armchair are pushed down to indicate the pressure of Griffin’s weight. Several times during the course of the film, we see doors opening by themselves and objects “floating” in the air. There is a notable scene when an invisible Griffin steals a bicycle making it so that the bicycle appears to be moving on its own. While these examples may sound silly and overly simplistic by today’s CGI-filled standards, they are in fact quite impressive. The mechanisms used to create the effect cannot be spotted by the naked eye.

The strange, the unexplained … the unintentionally funny!

  • When Griffin is being shown his room in the Inn, they access it using the back stairs. Below them, we see the wives of the male pubgoing patrons sitting at a table drinking their beers.
  • When Flora is talking with Kemp, she is deliberately placed behind a large bouquet of flowers. The shot is held for several seconds, so it is clearly intentional though I wonder why this is.
  • In the living room at Kemp’s house, there is a framed picture of Flora on the fireplace mantle. I found this to be very odd considering that Flora is engaged to Griffin and in one scene, rebuffs Kemp’s profession of love almost as if she is repulsed by it. Could Flora have been two-timing Griffin after all?
  • There is a slight inconsistency with the snowfall. When Griffin arrives, there are blizzard-like conditions and a week later, there are barely any visible patches of snow on the ground. At the end of the movie, it is back to heavy snowfall once more.
  • Kemp has a marvellously large and beautifully decorated house. Why does a single man who spends a great deal of his time fooling around in a laboratory have such a fine home?
  • When the radio makes a public announcement about the Invisible Man, the delivery is almost like that from a B-movie. Also, a montage of different images are being shown, which is very much like the film Armageddon when the astronauts are about the climb aboard the Space Shuttle.

My verdict is that you should not miss out on this “classic as they come” thrilling horror film!