It’s said that a person’s character is best defined by those moments when no one’s watching. What would you do if you knew no one could see you? This was the very question pondered by H.G. Wells in his story The Invisible Man, and it’s the same question put to audiences by Universal’s film of the same name. A further question was asked in both cases as well: how do you catch a man you can’t see?
This film is what Hollywood calls a triple threat. The book was popular, so that helped the marketing and public awareness. Director James Whale was already celebrated for his turn on Universal’s Frankenstein. And the movie would have a top-notch leading man, very important in the age of silver screen iconography. Who else would Universal and Whale turn to but their golden boy, Boris Karloff?
But Karloff said no. He agreed, then he backed out. It seems that producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., had repeatedly cut Karloff’s contractual salary. Others were considered for the role, but Whale brought in Claude Rains. This would be Rains’ first American appearance, and it would skyrocket him to fame and success in the following years. Not bad for a role that hid his face until the final frames of the movie. It’s a credit to Rains that he could pull off the kind of vocal menace needed to make this character stick in the imagination the way it has. But then, these are the acting chops that made him a star.
Add to that, Rains was a claustrophobic, and the bandage work was extremely difficult for him. There are times when a (noticeably shorter) stunt double was needed for some of the more difficult effects as many of the shots were filmed with Rains wearing black velvet on a black velvet background, with other shots superimposed to achieve the invisibility effects. For the era, these effects and the mechanical puppetry of the environment being manipulated by an invisible man were state-of-the-art and groundbreaking.
So what’s the story? When the movie opens, Dr. Jack Griffin is already invisible. He has pushed the bounds of his experiment, and now he has exiled himself from his colleagues and friends in the quest to find the means to reverse the process. He comes to rent some rooms at a small village tavern, but a month later he’s late on rent, and the landlord wants him gone. Frustrated with his experiments and with the locals, he tosses the landlord down the stairs, prompting intervention by the local police and obligatory mob-to-be. That’s when he reveals his secret to the world, challenging those who would chase him.
The movie’s visuals aren’t the only reason this film works as it does. There’s a psychological element in play that gets pushed because of the timing of the production. Being a Pre-Code film, there are ideas that can be pushed that a movie from just a couple of years later wouldn’t be able to do on account of censorship. We see how intelligent our title character is as he explains his plight. To be fully invisible, he must challenge the elements completely without his clothes, which is difficult in the dead of winter with several inches of snow. Stairs are a problem because people are accustomed to looking at their feet, and he has to keep his clean to not be seen. Even a little dirt under his fingernails gives away his location.
But if that’s not enough, real world fears are brought forth and played on as well. Griffin makes the claim that once he has the secret of the reversal, he can sell both formulas to the highest bidder for thousands, perhaps millions. The nation that buys his secrets can put armies in the field that would sweep through unchecked. Consider for a moment that the year of this film’s release is also the year Hitler came to power.
As you might imagine, the movie was a success. It was Universal’s most successful one since Frankenstein, and it spawned a number of sequels even without its leading man or director. Even H. G. Wells praised it, with the caveat that “while he liked the picture he had one grave fault to find with it. It had taken his brilliant scientist and changed him into a lunatic, a liberty he could not condone.” Whale responded by saying that rationally-minded motion picture audiences would believe that only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible.
That’s one of the fundamental differences with the source material, the state of morality and stability of the central character. Wells’ version has him as amoral from the start, stealing money from his father to fund his research. Rains’ version is presumably a good man before the drugs imbalance him. This is a theme with most science fiction films of the era: it’s not science if it’s not mad science. Like Frankenstein before it, it’s a science fiction film first, with horror coming as a direct result of dismissal of the consequences. In the era following World War I, consequence was first and foremost on everyone’s mind as Depression and foreign dictators dominated the headlines. Humble means and ambition, therefore, become a combination to be both hoped for and feared. It’s subtext that holds the film in the public imagination, reinforced by its special effects.
Today, most people don’t really think about those many reasons why the film is so memorable. The Invisible Man is, to most, simply one of the pantheon of the classic Universal Monsters, often the one modern audiences overlook despite its high ranking on AFI lists and such. Shamefully, I’m guilty of that as well. It’s been a while since I revisited this one. After watching Halloween last night, I immediately went through the classic catalog to see what “mere mortal” monsters were there before Norman Bates and Psycho. That’s when I knew it was time to see this one again. There are some goofy comedic moments to be sure, but it still stands up for all the right reasons so far as I’m concerned. I doubt I’ll wait so long before my next viewing.