4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. A stunning early sound era masterpiece from the genius of James Whale.
“We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.”
Let’s make no bones about it. This is a James Whale film through and through. Produced at a time when he had complete autonomy at Universal courtesy of production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Whale chose to reject the stupid proposed drafts and merely enhance H. G. Well’s classic novel with his own trademark brand of black humor and chills.
The Invisible Man is the stepping stone between Whale’s earlier Frankenstein (1931) and the supreme masterpiece that unquestionably one of the greatest films of all time: Bride of Frankenstein (1935). While extraordinarily developed from Dracula (1931) and for being such an early sound film, Frankenstein does have its problems and pitfalls like any other production. All of these are primarily from a lack of hale being involved fully in every capacity and are thus gone in The Invisible Man. Man is not only a classic, a stunning early sound film, but a surprisingly British film made here on American shores.
It is also an absolute gem and along with The Mummy (1932) the most underrated of all the Universal horrors. Whale fills the film with his favored use of offbeat secondary characters including the wonderfully shrieking Una O’Connor and even a bit for Dwight Frye. This helps immensely to fill out to scope of the story’s universe and fills in the gaps that the more limited production values of the time could not. Of course these are all supplanted by the first American screen role of one of cinema’s finest actors, a man so good at his craft that he typically slips into the background as invisible as his character here. The genius of Whale in casting Claude Rains is that he sought a voice and not a performer since who would be seeing the performer as an invisible man?? This allowed the casting of someone thought to be terrible all due to a poor screentest. But Whale heard that one of a kind voice that projects such extreme vulnerability and mortality along with a underlying conviction that could be construed into strength. And that was all it took.
Rains is a wonder as the Invisible Man, running the gamut from weak and terrified to kind and loving to paranoiac and power-mad to vengeful and murderous to finally poetic and elegiac. It is truly a stupendous performance, proving the adage once again of the strength that can come only from the best of radio and voice acting performances. The other roles are filled out accordingly with some of Whale’s favorite actors as mention above along with Gloria Stuart from The Old Dark House (1932) and even a part for our favorite guardian angel Henry Travers.
The special effects still hold up today and despite having a few things visible actually are more effective with the passage of time due to their antique quality, much like King Kong (1933). They seem so archaic from today’s technology we are oversaturated with that they seem downright off-putting and creepy in places. By using black velvet coverings and separately filmed backgrounds, John P. Fulton painstakingly produced scenes that still to this day drive home the idea of an invisible man.
Instead of Frankenstein‘s Gothic atmosphere, Whale opts for a different atmosphere this time and presents snowy villages of England which to be perfectly honest allows for a much more varied and rich atmosphere than the simple trappings of Germany did two years earlier. The setting is so well implemented that one can almost feel the cold charm of the snowy taverns and the cozy atmosphere of an empty rocking chair in front of the fire rocking almost as if its own accord. The black humor maintained throughout enhances this to such a degree that the film becomes for many, myself included, an old and very cherished friend to revisit at least once every October.
Of course remove Whale and the entire thing would fall apart, as the four later sequels proved. Of these only the first has any semblance of the original’s charm due to the plotting of Curt Siodmak (much like the Mummy sequels, only The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is of any merit) and casts another charming actor invisible, Vincent Price. Fulton remained for all of these and only bettered his already outstanding work despite the increasing pointlessness of the films.
Whale abounds in using black humor to round out the story, and thus makes The Invisible Man an absolute delight to return to frequently. By using offbeat characters and enhanced plotting from the novel that makes this the most deadly of the Universal monsters it is a film that is simultaneously thrilling, suspenseful, comic and endearing nearly 70 years on. It betters the novel and Whale’s own Frankenstein, and points he way towards the pinnacle of the entire cycle. A wonderful movie to behold.
“Put a warm rug in the car. It’s cold outside when you have to go about naked.”
EDITIONS: The initial DVD and the Legacy Collection version are largely identical. These are missing a music cue found on the Laserdisc, which has been substituted for legal clearance reasons. The film is the most worn of the films, with wear, tears, scratches running throughout the opening reels, but these largely clear up for the most part during the remainder of the feature. The image is an overall nice looking 1.33 Academy ratio SD transfer with good contrast levels and balance. The audio is relatively clear with less hiss than the earlier films, but of course not as well recorded as the later films were. The film has undergone an intensive restoration courtesy of Technicolor and the discovery of an almost complete dupe held at the British Film Institute. This was painstakingly redone to create a new HD master for theatrical exhibition and for the new Blu-ray found in the Universal box set. The BD has some DNR and edge enhancement and this processing while completely unnecessary does not detract terribly from the film and I hope it gains a greater audience in it’s sparkling new HD incarnation.