“Look! ‘E’s all eaten away!” – Constable Jaffers
Sometimes, the stars line up perfectly, and the right project lands in the right director’s hands with the right cast, against all the odds. This is one of those cases. The Invisible Man is one of the best adaptations of a H.G.Wells novel even to have been filmed. If not THE best. But it nearly didn’t happen. Wells was dissatisfied with Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of his novel The Island of Doctor Moreau the previous year, feeling they dropped his social commentary and making it a horror movie instead – so he demanded and got script approval.
Well, the script went through some iterations that we can be grateful we never saw – one was set in Czarist Russia, another on the moon (see what I mean). Naturally Boris Karloff was locked in as the lead as their resident monster – but that changed. Actually, Colin Clive who’d played Henry Frankenstein was being courted for the role after Karloff. Ultimately the part went to Claude Rains in his first American film role. Unless I’m mistaken, his first speaking role in a film, which is ironic when you consider that Rains’ face isn’t seen until the end and he literally plays the role with his voice. All this, and the addition of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House with his eclectic cast of eccentric supporting players, special effects that were as ground breaking in their day as computer graphics are now - and seventy one minutes of pure, classic cinema gold are created – thank you cinema gods!
On a wintery night, a mysterious stranger (Claude Rains) swathed in bandages makes his way to a country inn, where he wants to rent a room. The landlady, Jenny, is a shrill, shrew of a woman played to ear splitting perfection with every pantomime shriek by Una O’Connor. (She plays pretty much the same interfering screaming busybody in the upcoming Bride of Frankenstein.) Jenny is reluctant to rent a room off-season, but gives in. It’s not long before the new lodger is causing problems. (Though her nosiness is a contributing factor)
Her guest is Jack Griffin. She reckons that his face and hands being wrapped in bandages, his eyes covered by dark goggles, his demand for privacy is due to “an ‘orrible accident”. In truth, Griffin, a scientist, is becoming increasingly unhinged and impatient. An experimental serum he has injected under the skin for a month has rendered him completely invisible, but now he’s desperately seeking a reversal, and failing to find one. As he falls further into homicidal, psychopathic insanity, it’s noticeable how eerily similar Rains’ delivery is to Colin Clive’s in Frankenstein.
Griffin had worked in a laboratory and had pursued his own experiments in his spare time, which, we are told included experimentation with Monocane, an Indian drug known to bleach colour. A lesser known side effect is insanity. (Really, why is THAT the lesser known one?)
When confronted about his overdue rent in the room, Griffin becomes enraged, takes his clothes off so he can’t be detected and attacks the locals who typically of a James Whale film provide much of the film’s humour, including the hilariously officious Constable Jeffers (E.E. Clive, another Whale favourite) who pragmatically observes; “He's invisible, that's what's the matter with him. If he gets the rest of them clothes off, we'll never catch him in a thousand years.”
Griffin heads toward the home of Kemp (William Harrigan) his old colleague at the lab who’s also his rival for their boss’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and demands his help. He explains part of is predicament; “There are one or two things you must understand, Kemp. I must always remain in hiding for an hour after meals. The food is visible inside me until it is digested. I can only work on fine, clear days. If I work in the rain, the water can be seen on my head and shoulders. In a fog, you can see me - like a bubble. In smoky cities, the soot settles on me until you can see a dark outline. You must always be near at hand to wipe off my feet. Even dirt between my fingernails would give me away. It is difficult at first to walk down stairs. We are so accustomed to watching our feet. But, these are trivial difficulties. We shall find ways of defeating everything.”
But his growing insanity and lust for world domination is becoming more and more prevalent.
In fact, Griffin accrues the highest kill rate of any of the Universal monsters as he evades a police dragnet, attacks individuals and deliberately causes a train wreck. From the numbers we’re given in the film, he actually kills 122 people during his short reign of terror. His final victim is Kemp, who betrays him to the police.
For an early thirties film, Kemp’s comeuppance is pretty sadistic. Bound hand and foot, he’s pushed in a car off a cliff. As Griffin says gleefully… “Just sit where you are. I'll get out and take the handbrake off and give you a little shove to help you on. You'll run gently down and through the railings, then you'll have a big thrill for a hundred yards or so till you hit a boulder, then you'll do a somersault and probably break your arms, then a grand finish up with a broken neck! Well, goodbye, Kemp. I always said you were a dirty little coward. You're a dirty sneaking little rat as well. Goodbye.”
Sheltering in a barn during a snowstorm, a famer hears Griffin breathing and alerts the police who shoot him, being able to spot his footprints in the snow. As he dies, he becomes visible and that’s the first time we see Rains’ face. But he’d pop up again in other roles in the Universal films.
In a way, structurally, The Invisible Man bears a resemblance to Frankenstein. Both have a crazed scientist seeking privacy for their work, both have a doting fiancé looking for them, both have a rival for the fiancé. In a twist, though – as Griffin kills Kemp before himself dying of his bullet wounds, this means poor Flora, the innocent in all this, is left all alone at the end.
If audiences thought this film relished in its sadism – they had no idea what Universal was going to hit them with next.
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