If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees were to gain powers of invisibility, no bakery or chocolatier would be safe from her! Mwah hah ha ha ha!
"A few chemicals mixed together, and flesh and blood and bone just fade away."—John Griffin (Claude Rains)
Invisibility must be one of the most universal (pardon the pun) of longings. From Greek mythology to Harry Potter, we love to imagine ourselves given the power of moving unseen among our fellow humans—eavesdropping on our friends, taking the upper hand with our enemies, flouting all of the usual barriers and rules that restrict us in our everyday lives. Even before noted author H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man, the idea of invisibility was recurrent in literature and even film. However, it was the 1933 film adaptation of Wells's novel, directed by James Whale, that created a lasting legacy of invisibility in film. This movie and those it inspired explored not only the advantages of invisibility but also the possible price it might exact. Now Universal has collected its classic invisibility films as part of its excellent Monster Legacy collection, and we can at last get a really good look at these invisible visitors.
Facts of the Case
Like the previous Legacy titles, the Invisible Man set comprises two discs, one a single-sided disc featuring the parent film and special features, the other a flipper disc containing the remaining four films.
• The Invisible Man (1933)
The invisible man is John Griffin (Claude Rains, Casablanca), who recently left the employ of kindly scientist Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) to pursue his own scientific experiment. Denied the privacy in which to develop an antidote, however, he now seems to be permanently invisible—and the drug that brought about his invisibility is affecting his brain. Whereas originally he had devoted himself to science so that he might earn the right to propose to Dr. Cranley's pretty daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic), he has now become maddened with the desire for power and displays a remorseless thirst for violence. Even as he enlists his former colleague, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), into his service as unwilling assistant and patsy, the police are gathering their wits in an effort to come up with a way of stopping a madman they cannot even see.
• The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
• The Invisible Woman (1940)
• Invisible Agent (1942)
• The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
When it comes to special effects-based films, there's always the question of how well they will age. Advances in technology make films of just ten years ago seem hokey and dated; how well, then, can a senior citizen among movies hold up after all the intervening decades? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that these films—especially the centerpiece in this collection, The Invisible Man—are still exciting and highly enjoyable. Our sharp eyes, attuned to any vestige of fakery, can easily discern the presence of film trickery, but that doesn't take away from the experience of watching these films; if anything, being able to glimpse the effort behind the invisibility makes us appreciate them even more.
The first and undeniably greatest of these movies, The Invisible Man, proves that it is justly admired. Among its other distinctive qualities, such as Whale's direction, the film benefits immeasurably from the mellifluous voice and acting talent of Claude Rains as the title character. Although he wasn't the first choice for the role, it's no wonder that Rains became the Invisible Man even though his only previous film experience had been a supporting role in a silent movie. His voice is so distinctive: husky yet musical, cultured yet warm, able to suggest both sly humor and seething malevolence. His first speaking role was thus beautifully suited to his particular talents, and it understandably launched him on a long and successful film career. (A decade later he would play another classic horror character whose presence relies largely on his voice, the Phantom of the Opera.)
For the remainder of the cast, Whale assembled a wonderful array of distinctive character actors, prominent among whom are the one and only Una O'Connor (Frankenstein), who brings her unique talent for hysteria to the comedic role of the landlady, and Henry Travers, who is as endearing here as he was as the angel Clarence in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Unfortunately, some of the actors who have more screen time are less enjoyable. As Kemp, Harrigan is adequate, but Gloria Stuart's Flora is downright annoying; she seems to have only one emotion—anguish. On the other hand, she does look very attractive in the succession of elegant bias-cut negligees and afternoon gowns that she models, so perhaps that's why Kemp and Griffin both want to marry her. Just because men turn invisible doesn't mean they no longer have eyes.
If the casting of Rains is almost a guaranteed plus, given his distinguished later career, one of the more unexpected qualities that distinguishes The Invisible Man is its use of humor. As Griffin slips the fetters of sanity and rationality, he becomes prone not just to violence but to mischief. When he skips down a country lane singing "Here we go gathering nuts in May" in nothing but a pair of (apparently self-propelled) trousers, we can't help but enjoy with him the freedom that invisibility brings. Who among us wouldn't do as Griffin does and use our new power to play pranks on thick-headed bystanders and annoying bumpkins? Such moments capture the exhilarating part of the fantasy of invisibility—and they show us Griffin's human side, the part of him that we can relate to, even though it's in danger of losing itself in bloodthirstiness.
Another of the film's strengths is the way it closely and intelligently examines the condition of invisibility. Like any good classic of the science fiction genre—as distinct from pure supernatural horror—The Invisible Man establishes the rules of the reality-bending phenomenon and grounds it in realism. Griffin coolly lays the rules of his invisible existence out for Kemp: He must keep scrupulously clean, for mud on his feet or dirt under his nails can give him away. He must go into hiding directly after eating while his food digests, for the contents of his stomach will be visible. The police and townspeople also stretch their wits to confront this new condition and come up with an impressive array of solutions: everything from spray-paint to freshly tarred roads to fishing nets to listening for the sound of sneezes. The film teems with ideas, and these concrete details add credibility to the story and make it enjoyably complex. Invisibility, it seems, is not the panacea we might have dreamed it would be.
Also distinctive is the clever way Whale keeps the title character, as it were, in sight: Even when entirely invisible (and not, say, half-clothed or bandaged), he is "visible" as he picks up and lights a cigarette or sits and rocks in a rocking chair. Whale's decision to show the character's presence in such ways give us a stronger sense of his presence than his voice alone would provide, and these touches make the action much more convincing and immediate.
Audiovisual quality is very handsome for a film of this vintage. Although there are still the expected age defects, such as speckling, film damage, and some flicker, by and large the visual transfer is clear, with rich contrast, and more attractive than it has any right to be for a film this old. Likewise, audio is beautifully clear. Fans of early talkies will be familiar with all the hiss and skips that mar the soundtracks of their favorite films from this era, but The Invisible Man is free of these. This is a very nice restoration.
The Invisible Man Returns, one of two 1940 follow-up films, is an enjoyable variation on the invisibility plot: Because the hero is a fugitive seeking to establish his innocence of murder before the drug makes him insane, the story has a strong sense of urgency that increases as the film progresses. Young Vincent Price, not yet established as a major star (let alone a horror star), brings his beautiful voice and characteristic sense of relish to his performance. He is excellent at establishing Radcliffe as an amiable, fundamentally likable young man whose personality alters under the influence of the drug to take on a new arrogance and lust for power. Watching (or, more specifically, listening to) Price's performance leaves one in no doubt as to how he became so successful in horror films: No one was quite like him at registering gleeful madness, and we can't help liking him even when he's at his most murderous. The presence of the wonderful Cecil Kellaway in a supporting role is an additional delight, and in the person of Nan Grey we have a much more pleasing and developed leading lady than Gloria Stuart.
Special effects have made some notable advances since the first film, not surprising given the passage of time, and some particularly elegant visual moments show the invisible Radcliffe revealed by smoke and rain. As with the previous film, we don't see our lead character's face until the end of the film, and the final revelation scene is both eerie and effective, as Radcliffe attains visibility starting with his arteries and veins (only to become downright dishy when fully visible). Other standout sequences in the film include the policemen's search of Radcliffe's home with the aid of smoke machines and a tense action sequence that takes place at the family colliery, where the invisible Radcliffe confronts his cousin. The Invisible Man Returns is not quite as dark in tone as its predecessor, in part because of our greater sympathy for the main character, but it offers a very enjoyable mixture of suspense, humor, and eerie effects—and, of course, it offers Vincent Price, himself reason enough to seek out this entertaining film.
The Invisible Woman is the only out-and-out comedy in the set, and it's also the only one of these films to cash in overtly on the titillation factor—the fact that, in order for an invisible person to be unseen, he (or she) must be naked. Because the invisible nude person is female, there's a much flirtier atmosphere here, as in one scene in which the invisible Kitty decides to prove to the hero that she has "good-lookin' legs" by putting on her stockings…just her stockings. This film also boasts a number of excellent comedic performances: Its cast includes not only noted heavy Oscar Homolka but the wonderful ditherer Charlie Ruggles, as the beleaguered butler; the marvelous Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz) as the disapproving housekeeper; and the great John Barrymore, who had descended by this point in his career from romantic lead to wacky character actor but still brings wit, playfulness, and unique charisma to his role as the professor. The heroine is also strongly cast: Although Virginia Bruce rarely worked in A-list films and isn't widely known today, she has an enjoyable comedic persona, and she makes an engaging disembodied voice.
The humorous screenplay is one of the other strong points of the film, and I think a lot of audience members will also identify with Kitty in her desire to get back at her despotic boss and strike a blow (literally) on behalf of all the poor hard-working schmoes who live a time-clock life. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which she invisibly terrorizes nasty Mr. Growley, who has always mistreated her and her fellow fashion models. The irruption of a bunch of gangsters into the goings-on keeps things lively and adds a new layer of humor as well as keeping the plot interesting, and the special effects are quite respectable. About the only real weaknesses in The Invisible Woman are the leading man—the only bland character—and the disappointing visual quality, which is fuzzy and grainy.
Invisible Agent is lighter in tone than its espionage plot might lead one to expect; although the primary villains, Lorre and Hardwick, pose a real threat to our hero (not to mention our country), the rest of the Nazi characters tend toward the bumbling doofus type…and many of them also sound like they were recruited from Brooklyn, which is a bit disorienting. Our hero is a square-jawed regular Joe, a man of action rather than an intellectual, who approaches his new role as a spy with a relaxed, informal attitude that tends toward outright sloppiness; he doesn't seem to understand, for example, that disembodied objects floating around town may actually attract notice. (It's fortunate for him that so many of the Nazis he encounters are the aforementioned bumbling doofuses.)
As his partner in espionage, the lovely Ilona Massey brings elegance to the enterprise (her costumes are '40s glamour at its most glittering) as well as a sense of urgency, since one of the most dangerous Nazis is her boyfriend, and she is thus placing herself in constant personal risk by working against him. Lorre and Hardwick turn in excellent performances (and create a nice contrast with each other), and there are some really handsome special effects sequences, as when the invisible Griffin soaps up in the bathtub. Overall this is an enjoyable light adventure that pleasantly mixes comedy, suspense, and a bit of romance. If we sometimes feel a bit smarter than the hero, well, that doesn't seriously interfere with our enjoyment of his adventures. Audiovisual quality for this feature is very fine indeed, with a particularly gorgeous black-and-white image, and we are also given the trailer for this film (which shows much damage but is nonetheless welcome).
The Invisible Man's Revenge is the weakest of the films here, in part because for the first forty minutes we have no character to root for: Neither the shady Herricks nor the unbalanced Griffin (no relation to the earlier Griffins) is particularly sympathetic, so the story doesn't draw us in really strongly. Carradine's Dr. Drury is intriguing but a bit creepy, and the comic relief character, the cockney Herbert (Leon Errol), didn't exactly warm the cockles of my heart. It's not until Julie's fiancé, a young reporter played by Alan Curtis, starts involving himself in the mysterious goings-on that any kind of hero emerges. Probably the most distinctive part of the film is its clever invisibility effects, such as the use of water to reveal Griffin's hand and face, and the prominence of an invisible dog, a German shepherd who has a score of his own to settle with Griffin (and who does some of the best stunt work in the film). Gale Sondergaard brings some nice echoes of Lady Macbeth to the story, but her character disappears for the second half of the film. Jon Hall also proves that he is less interesting as an obsessed madman than as a rah-rah American spy. Aside from Hall, performances all around are good but not outstanding, as is audiovisual quality.
Extras for the set include a commentary on The Invisible Man and a 35-minute featurette, "Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed," written by noted horror film maven David J. Skal and hosted by film historian Rudy Behlmer. The featurette tries to pack so much in that it inevitably slights some parts that I had hoped it would cover in more detail, like the advances in invisibility special effects shown over the course of these five films. However, we do learn about H.G. Wells's novel, director James Whale's career background, the development process of the first film (including Wells's own involvement), and instances of invisibility in even earlier films. The featurette even includes clips from my favorite homage to this film cycle, the "Son of the Invisible Man" sequence from 1987's portmanteau parody Amazon Women on the Moon, which stars Ed Begley Jr. as a madman who mistakenly believes he's invisible. The featurette also notes some story parallels between The Invisible Man and Whale's Frankenstein.
The commentary by Rudy Behlmer on The Invisible Man, like the featurette, covers a lot of ground. Behlmer packs a lot of information into the film's 71-minute running time, discussing not just the development and making of the film but the backgrounds and careers of most of the cast members (even now-obscure supporting or minor players). The details on the special effects sequences that he provides are actually harrowing; I had thought that the technical crew had the toughest job in that respect, but Rains and his stand-in also had to put up with more than I ever imagined. There is even some surprising inside information on how Rains acquired his distinctive voice. Behlmer's manner is calmly deliberate rather than lively and spontaneous, but it's a solid commentary, with rarely a second wasted, and is a meaty addition to the set. The production photographs are merely publicity stills; although these are worthy of inclusion, for behind-the-scenes shots one must look to the featurette.
Packaging for this set conforms to the attractive book-like style established by the previous titles in this series, and menu design is handsome: I was especially delighted by the creepy soundtrack that accompanies the menus. The only dissatisfying feature is that the film synopses are given on a thin insert that comes loose inside the package; it would have been preferable to have this information on the slip cover or disc case. Viewers should also check out The Invisible Man Returns to make sure their copy isn't flawed; mine had a hitch in playback just over an hour in.
Aficionados of horror, science fiction, and classic movies alike have cause to celebrate this solid collection. Kudos to Universal for releasing this set, and especially for including lesser-known delights like The Invisible Woman. The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection represents a distinctive part of film history and provides hours of entertainment. Is it a good buy? The answer is crystal clear.
The court strongly recommends psychiatric counseling for the invisible defendants, but their innocence is transparently obvious. Court dismissed!
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Scales of Justice, The Invisible Man
Perp Profile, The Invisible Man
Distinguishing Marks, The Invisible Man
• "Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed" Featurette
Scales of Justice, The Invisible Man Returns
Perp Profile, The Invisible Man Returns
Distinguishing Marks, The Invisible Man Returns
Scales of Justice, The Invisible Woman
Perp Profile, The Invisible Woman
Distinguishing Marks, The Invisible Woman
Scales of Justice, Invisible Agent
Perp Profile, Invisible Agent
Distinguishing Marks, Invisible Agent
Scales of Justice, The Invisible Man's Revenge
Perp Profile, The Invisible Man's Revenge
Distinguishing Marks, The Invisible Man's Revenge
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