Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.
Great month full of pre-Codes and tough month for a horror fan to pick just one to recommend; I previously posted on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and you can’t go wrong with any of the Oct. 28th TCM movies: Dracula (1930), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934) and Island of Lost Souls (1933). My favourite of this group is the intense, ingenious and darkly fun The Invisible Man, a lean, thrilling study of an ambitious scientist turned megalomaniac after his incredible discovery and the way it changes him. To play the tragic Dr. Griffin, director James Whale passed on Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, and featured Claude Rains in his American film debut. Interesting how a role centering on such ego required an actor who had to put his aside to play it. Rains’ face is visible at the end of the movie, for mere seconds, but thanks to his magnificent voice, booming laugh and fierce self-important physicality, he created a rich and unforgettable character and set the bar high for portrayals of unseen villains and disembodied voices.
Whale mixed some great dark humour with the shocks and violence. More than one scene is built around the busybody landlady Una O’Connor’s unnaturally delayed, unhinged, scene-stealing shrieks. Griffin bashes in a policeman’s head, derails a train, steers his colleague Kemp (William Harrigan) off a cliff. He delights in terrorizing, teasing, and creating mayhem, with a deranged cackle, a click of the heels and a selection from his repertoire of children’s songs. Amusement also comes from spotting fine supporting players like John Carradine, Dwight Frye, E. E. Clive, Forrester Harvey, Dudley Digges and Walter Brennan.
Griffin’s evil is explained by Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) as a side effect of the potion Griffin concocted and guzzled, but resentment was already brewing in his motives and character before he started mixing his cocktail. It comes from the poverty that limits his research and the desire to step up to a level befitting both his ambition and his wealthy fiance Flora (Gloria Stuart). After that it’s just as much human nature as chemically-induced lunacy for this kind of man to convince himself he’s a frustrated, persecuted genius, beset by meddling ignoramuses, blocked by class structure and laws, and deserving of every reward his newfound superpower will unlock. The new world order he proposes won’t discriminate between great or little men, but it will involve a lot of contempt and judgment carried out with a sick sense of humour. Rains’ haughty malice, his volcanic outbursts and remaining shreds of humanity, awakened at thoughts of Flora (though he seems to quickly forget about her), give him a solid, compelling presence, and make his disturbing acts and fantasies such chilling fun to watch.
So many great visuals in this movie: the low angles used during Griffin’s grand entrance at the inn, that shot that lingers on his bandaged face, the camera traveling around and exposing a cutaway set when Kemp and Flora walk from room to room, and of course all the clever, impressive, revolutionary invisibility effects. I like how quickly the police get up to speed on the “rules” of fighting an unseen opponent, and draw ideas from brainstorming townspeople on how to trap Griffin (smoke, tar, dirt, nets, etc. and thank you unexpected snowfall). Along with Griffin’s brief explanation of his own weaknesses and the ways he copes with them, it’s efficient storytelling that puts the focus on the Invisible Man’s madness, his reign of terror and the race to stop him.
See The Invisible Man on TCM Oct. 28th, and now please go visit Karen at Shadows & Satin to see her TCM pre-Code pick for this month.