In saying that The Invisible Man is an overlooked gem in the Universal canon of monsters/Monsters, I would be committing both a bad joke and a falsity. The film’s performances and special effects remain textbook examples, it led to a moderately successful franchise of sequels, and it has since been a major part of all the home-viewing releases from Universal over the last four decades.
Yet is it as visible as it could be? Should be? With the release next year of a remake as part of the problem-plagued Dark Universe series, scrutiny will certainly come back to the original, which still casts the impossibly long shadow. Yet the original film does not need such a successor to stand out on its own merits. The work of director James Whale, screenwriter R.C. Sherriff, special effects wizard John P. Fulton, the unflappable Claude Rains, and the rest of the cast and crew will not, to use the manic words of the invisible man himself, Jack Griffin, “fade away.”
While science was always an undercurrent of Universal’s monster films, TIM was the first to present an altered human being as the antagonist that was created by human means and without any supernatural aid. Frankenstein would certainly fulfill this criterion, but the jury will always be out as to whether the Monster is a “natural” or “artificial” man. Perhaps wisely, like Frankenstein, TIM does not present an extensive scientific exposition of the scientist’s work, which is summed up thus: “a thousand experiments, a thousand failures, until, at last, the great wonderful day!” Claude Rains’s delivery of this text, however, imbues it will all manner of fantastic wonder that a thousand technicalities could never achieve.
It is Rains’s performance as “The Invisible One”—another wonderful example of Universal’s theatrical billing—that grounds the whole film, the first sound appearance of his illustrious career. As with all of Rains’s work, one could break down every frame and every sentence in TIM for its nuances, thanks most of all to that voice from heaven, an alchemic combination of power and sensitivity. How else can you explain the arc from Griffin’s curt first line—”I want a room and a fire”—to his last, the unofficial credo for every science fiction movie made—”I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” (Good advice for remakes, I must say.) My favorite line comes when Griffin anticipates that his forced associate Dr. Kemp will turn him in the police and reprimands him with nasty gentility: “If you try to escape by the window, I shall follow you, and no one in the world can save you.”
While the film adaptation departs significantly from the obscure history of Griffin in the novel, Whale and Sherriff, in true English fashion, imbue the character with a poignant sense of class deprivation, the element that fuels and informs his actions. As Griffin reveals to his fiance Flora, “I was so pitifully poor. I had nothing to offer you. Just a poor, struggling chemist.” The resultant megalomania of the character at upending law and order owes something to Philip Wylie’s novel The Murderer Invisible, one of the many secondary sources involved in the long, complicated development of the film. Rains, however, even in the most murderous moments in the film, never loses the strand of the audience’s sympathy and interest in the character. In one instance, he gains more of it in the elimination of Dr. Kemp, the nominal “hero” of Wells’s novel, but reconceived by Whale and Sherriff as a cleaner but weaker career rival to Griffin, and a more predatory angle in the love triangle with Gloria Stuart’s Flora Cranley.
Richard Chamberlain described the timbre of Rains’s voice like honey and gravel. His metaphor is perfect, yet I have always considered Rains’s instrument as something akin to Karloff’s, a timbral texture of velvet, inviting and yet unnerving at the same time. Strangely, or appropriately, both men suffered from speech impediments, yet despite these supposed “flaws,” their voices remain speaking gospel. (Rains’s recordings of Bible passages are, of course, required listening.) I was heartened to learn in a recent interview that Mark Hamill’s voice for the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series was an homage to Rains in TIM. (That accounts for the Joker’s inexplicably wild and weird mid-Atlantic infection.)
Hamill specifically cites this scene as inspiration, the first of many monologues for Rains and the first extended reveal of his invisibility. Countering this frenzy is the bewildered crew of “country bumpkins” who have come to arrest Griffin. The faces are all part of James Whale’s stock company of actors, headed by the delicious pomposity of E. E. Clives’s constable Jappers, outfitted with an echt-British mustache and thick country accent.
A small note here about the nose, or noses: Rains’s successors as invisible men all lack his distinctive profile, here lampooned with that comically fake proboscis. While it may seem an incidental point, during the portions of the film when Griffin is in bandages, the contours of a face which we have yet to see in the flesh convey the strength of the character. For the bizarre publicity stills where Universal sketched in Griffin’s outline for his invisible scenes, the nose remains.
Apart from a split-second profile shot in the parlor scene when Griffin first arrives in Iping, this sequence is the first in which the invisibility is put on full display. Certainly, the special effects are child’s play today, but given that relative ease, contemporary films are often big on spectacle but short on character for effects, especially the character attributes of probability and tangibility. The success of the early invisible sequences is how much Whale balances them with ironic comedy—Griffin’s laugh; the whimsical dialog (“They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them something to write home about!”); the farce of the shirt chase; the knocking over of the hall clock as a final affront to Mr. and Mrs. Hall; the bicycle chase; the list goes on. While the literal and metaphoric wires can still be seen in some shots, the work of John P. Fulton and his crew still possesses awe that is not easily dispelled. Even the most notorious goof, the print of shoes rather than human feet in the snow when Griffin flees the burning barn, remains a classic. The best effect is the most complicated: Griffin unwrapping himself in the mirror before retiring for the night.
“Camp” is usually tossed around in discussions of Whale’s work, a distinction that leans more on Whale’s sexuality than a genuine consideration of the actual storytelling going on in the films. While the comedy may read more broadly to us today, Whale always kept these elements in check and they are almost always positioned against dramatic opposites. Una O’Connor’s Mrs. Hall is a Whale specialty, totally believable as the twittering, meddlesome, and shrieking country landlady endlessly annoyed by her mysterious and ultimately deadly patron, a performance which H. G. Wells himself approved. Elsewhere, the presence of off-beat comedy offers a palliative to the bizarre and violent goings-on, a technique Whale used to full effect later in Bride of Frankenstein. Take the montage following Griffin’s murder of the policeman in Iping. Whale cuts quickly between a frightened populace armed with clubs, barricading doors, cowering for dear life, yet all the while the Invisible Man snores away without a care in the world. The short sequence below, following Griffin’s escape from the police at Kemp’s house with a pair of policemen’s trousers, offers the best encapsulation. In 19 seconds one gets a perfect primer to The Invisible Man and world of James Whale.