Universal // 1933 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 29th, 2000
The classic H.G. Wells tale comes to the silver screen.
The classic "mad scientist" tale, The Invisible Man thrilled audiences in 1933 and still holds up well today, with then-groundbreaking special effects still looking surprisingly good. It also marks the US debut of one of America's most cherished character actors, Claude Rains. This entry into the second round of classic horror films from Universal pleases on the extras front, but shows more wear than any of the previous discs in the collection.
Griffin, a scientist finds a means of making himself invisible, but does not know how to reverse the process. As he hides in seclusion searching for the solution, his sanity collapses under the effects of the drugs and the heady sense of unlimited power invisibility grants him. Eventually he begins a reign of terror unlike anything the populace has yet encountered, and those who know Griffin and those hunting him must work to stop him before he can kill again, or lose himself irrevocably to the madness.
Coming off the great successes of Frankenstein and The Mummy, James Whale was the obvious choice to direct the highly anticipated screen adaptation of H.G. Well's tale. Whale combined his keen eye for the camera with his own slightly wacky sense of humor to make a dark yet entertaining film. His efforts comprise one of the four main aspects which make this film a true classic.
The script underwent several revisions before it was remembered that H.G. Wells had script approval, and it was only then that the script came back to its literary roots. The film was the better for it, as the story turned out much better than some of the earlier drafts. That is not to say that there were not changes for the sake of the medium of film. The addition of a caring employer and a fiancé brought the film to a more emotional tone and not-so-coincidentally brought it to the format followed in Frankenstein, a proven hit. Both films had the element of the friend who was in love with the same woman the scientist was engaged to, and brought the touching concern for the scientist whose grasp for power has taken him over the brink into madness and obsession.
Perhaps the biggest draw for the film at the time of its release was the dazzling special effects. Virtually inventing methods of composite mattes in film made the invisible man truly come alive and real. Some of the scenes showing a shirt running around seemingly by itself, yet obviously containing a man and not being hung by wires, and more difficult ones showing him unwrapping the bandages in a mirror were among the most demanding shots ever done at the time. I still get a thrill watching those scenes today, updated versions such as Hollow Man notwithstanding.
But the most important aspect in making the film the classic it has become has to be the performance of Claude Rains. Since you only see the actual face of the actor once in the film, the part called for a truly distinctive and emotive voice. That voice was found by James Whale on a reportedly horrible screen test from Claude Rains, who was at the time overly theatrical from his stage experience, but had a voice he fell in love with immediately. Our column on the life of Claude Rains from our own Barrie Maxwell gives further information on the struggles Rains went through that ultimately gave him this distinctive voice. Perhaps Rains did not have a great screen test earlier, but he vindicated any doubters with this film, and became a staple actor in many films thereafter, including some of the greatest of all time, such as Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Lawrence of Arabia.
While the film sticks to it's own formula in many ways, it has definite themes that elicit real thought as well. In the '30s scientists were the mad graspers of power in the Universal films, and only later would become the heroes of the films such as in Creature from the Black Lagoon. But Griffin is not an altogether unsympathetic character, as it is made clear that before subjecting himself to the treatments he was a caring and good man. There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde analogy to be made in this respect, as the drugs turned him from such into a cackling, raving madman. Certainly the old adage about power corrupting and absolute power plays a large part in the story as well, as we can easily identify with the sense of power that Griffin gets from his invisibility. The corruption that such power gives is also made clear from the madness that it brings to him, and Rains brings quite a chill when he cackles or wisecracks as people ineptly try to stop him. The notion of the Invisible Man as the outsider in society is also worth noting.
There are a couple noteworthy mentions among the supporting cast as well. Gloria Stuart, who would be nominated for an Oscar sixty five years later for her role in Titanic, plays the sweet and caring fiancé to the Invisible Man, and veteran stage actress Una O'Connor goes over the top with her hysterical screaming and Cockney accent. She will return to Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.
As I've come to expect from Universal's Classic Monster Collection, this DVD gives you a film school course in a box. Film historians David J. Skal and Rudy Behlmer provide nearly encyclopedic coverage of the film and its backstory, first in a 35 minute documentary entitles "Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed," which goes into great detail and gives plenty of footage of the special effects, to the feature length commentary by Behlmer. By themselves these two features tell nearly everything you could want to know about how the film came to be, it's effect on film in the future, and the making of the film itself. The disc also provides production notes, a photo gallery, and cast and crew bios and filmographies, to make for a full package of extras; exactly what I want to see in a DVD of a classic film.
The soundtrack has been remixed to a 2 channel mono, which is surprisingly clear for a film of its age. Though lacking in fidelity as most early mono tracks did, the noise floor is sufficiently low to enable you to understand everything being said clearly. There are some crackles and pops audible, however. I'd be remiss if I did not mention it.
The soundtrack has its minor problems from age, and these are even more prevalent with the quality of the source print from which the transfer was made. I have no complaints with the transfer itself, which gives a high degree of contrast and detail. Gray scale and black levels on this full frame and black and white transfer are fine. The problems come from the worn print itself. Numerous nicks and scratches appear throughout the film, and some scenes show excessive grain. As I mentioned above, this is the worst of the prints from this collection I've seen so far, but that isn't to say it is truly bad. The film is very watchable and far superior to any broadcast of it I've seen before. The film is nearly 70 years old, which certainly gives some excuse.
The film will probably seem quaint to aficionados of modern horror. The dialogue is pretty stilted, and some of the scenes go way over the top, especially Una O'Connor's screaming hysterics. Whale loved those screams, and he meant them as much for humor as for terror. The film is classic Whale and classic '30s, however, and fans of the era and the director will truly enjoy it. It should be remembered that when the transition to "talkies" came about, it was usually stage actors who filled the gap in these early films, which has a lot to do with the type of dialogue and delivery. This film was chock full of British stage actors whom Whale befriended during his theater days.
The few flaws from age do not offset the wonderful qualities of the film, and the extras on the disc make it very worthwhile for a purchase. So far everything has been looking positive toward a recommendation for the entire box set, as every disc I've viewed so far I would recommend in its own right.
Universal is fined for not doing a better job of cleaning up the source print, but is acquitted from any other charge for their fine collection of extras on this and the other Classic Monster Collection. James Whale and Claude Rains remain high in my respect and admiration for their fine work so many years ago.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1933
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track
* Production Photographs
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info