"…As the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea.
By the early 1940s, Universal already had two well-established monster film franchises in its Dracula and Frankenstein series. A second Mummy film had been made in 1940 (The Mummy's Hand) as had a second Invisible Man film (The Invisible Man Returns), both to fair success, boding well for perhaps two further successful series with those monsters. Casting around for other possibilities, Universal harked back to its 1935 film Werewolf of London with Henry Hull and Warner Oland. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was charged with developing a new script with a werewolf concept and the result was The Wolf Man. Shooting took three weeks and the film gained its final release title after an earlier title "Destiny" was dropped. The Wolf Man was released in late 1941 and was quite successful, prompting Universal to produce four more films with Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man during the 1940s.
The film has been available for some time now on DVD in a special edition as part of Universal's Classic Monster Collection.
Facts of the Case
Larry Talbot returns to his father's castle in Wales and soon meets the beautiful Gwen Conliffe in the local town. One night he goes to a carnival with Gwen and her friend Jenny. Frightened by Bela, an old gypsy fortune-teller who refuses to tell her fortune, Jenny runs into the woods where she is attacked by what appears to be a wolf. Larry tries to save her and although bitten by the wolf, manages to kill it with his cane. An investigation finds no sign of the wolf, but instead the dead body of Bela. Further, Larry's wound mysteriously heals itself overnight.
Larry finds himself shunned by the local towns-people who do not believe the story of the wolf and instead blame Larry for Bela's murder. The next night, Larry discovers his true fate. Bitten not by a simple wolf, but by Bela in werewolf form, Larry has now become a werewolf himself. Unable to help himself, he soon realizes that Gwen will be his next victim. As the local constable and townspeople stalk him through the woods, Larry in werewolf form in turn stalks Gwen.
The Wolf Man breezes by in a compact 70 minutes. It's a tremendously entertaining tale, ably acted by a talented cast that belies the film's B status. This is a horror film, but as with all Universal horror films of the time, the pleasure is in the atmosphere they create and the sense of pathos that most of them generate.
Starring is Claude Rains, one of the more under-appreciated actors of his day. Much of his career was at Warner Brothers where he provided classy, polished support to the studio's major stars such as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. But Rains seemed to have a special relationship with Universal because every time he worked there, it seemed to be as the star of one of the studio's horror classics. Other examples are The Invisible Man (1933) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943). In The Wolf Man, Rains is the perfect lord of the manor with his patrician bearing and smooth manner with the town's officials. His transformation from skeptic to eventual executioner is believably done because Rains understood well that human transformations are as much conveyed by changes in expression, intonation and body language as they are by physical reconstruction.
Also prominent in the cast are Warren William (a WB star of the early 1930s now on the down side of his career) as Dr. Lloyd; Ralph Bellamy (the perennial second banana in screwball comedies of the 1930s) here looking a little awkward as police Captain Paul Montford; Maria Ouspenskaya, most effective as an old gypsy woman who knows more about werewolves than anyone else; Bela Lugosi, welcome as always in the small role of the old gypsy Bela; and the refreshing Evelyn Ankers at her screaming best as Gwen. Interestingly, Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed for the first time as simply Lon Chaney) seems a little bland as Larry Talbot, although his earnestness makes for a likable portrayal overall in the end.
For a B film, The Wolf Man enjoys good production values, aside from the introductory scenes of Larry Talbot's arrival where too-obvious use of back projection and a less-than-believable long shot of his father's castle mar things somewhat. Otherwise, the various sets are realistically rendered with good attention to detail, such as the observatory in Talbot castle and the antique store in the town. Most impressive is the atmospheric marsh setting with the ever-changing patterns of fog enshrouding the trees and their branches. Memorable too is a fine music score (by Charles Previn) that does much to draw the viewer into the various moods of the story.
I should also mention Chaney's make-up for the wolf man sequences. This is the work of veteran universal make-up artist Jack Pierce who painstakingly built up the werewolf look on Chaney's face piece by piece each day. Pierce was rightfully regarded as a master of the make-up craft and was responsible for all of Universal's classic monsters. However, his failure to embrace newer make-up techniques, including the use of rubber appliances that reduced make-up times substantially, resulted in his being let go by Universal later in the 1940s.
Universal have given us a fairly good, workmanlike image transfer on its DVD of The Wolf Man. The film is presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. There are numerous speckles and scratches and even an occasional vertical line that appears from time to time, but the overall result is quite watchable. The image is sharp for the most part and free of edge enhancement. Contrast levels are good with fairly deep blacks and clean whites. Scenes that deviate from this are the marsh sequences that are at times more murky than even the foggy effects on the screen would warrant. The bottom line is, however, that the entertainment value of the story easily makes you forget any deficiencies in the image transfer
The sound is Dolby Digital mono and is in good shape. Dialogue is clear and the music score is well rendered. Hiss and distortion are absent although there is some variation in volume level.
As with the other initial titles in its Classic Monster Collection, Universal has provided a nice set of supplements. First, we have an audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver. Aided by Weaver's pleasant speaking voice and manner, this is a fascinating commentary, packed with information covering production activities, anecdotes, historical perspectives, actors' backgrounds, and so on. Too bad the film's only 70 minutes long, for it seemed as though Weaver could have gone on twice as long with all the information he has. Then, there's a new making-of documentary called "Monster by Moonlight" that is introduced by John Landis. Much of this piece is devoted to discussion of the werewolf make-up with some good interviews with contemporary make-up artist Rick Baker. Of interest too are comments by Curt Siodmak, the original script writer. Also on the disc are a lengthy poster and photo archive, production notes, thorough cast and director biographies/filmographies, and the original theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have anything particularly significant to bring up here.
The Wolf Man is a stylishly-made B film that, by virtue of a fine cast and good production values, delivers A-level entertainment. Universal has done the film proud with a fairly decent transfer and a fine selection of supplementary material. Highly recommended.
Both defendant and co-conspirator Universal are completely exonerated. This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Making-of Documentary "Monster by Moonlight"
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