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With: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, W.M. Harrigan, Dudley Digges, Una O'Connor, Henry Travers, Forrester Harvey, Walter Brennan, John Carradine
Written by: R.C. Sherriff, based on a story by H.G. Wells
Directed by: James Whale
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 71
Date: 11/13/1933

The Invisible Man (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

See Right Through You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The other day, I was at the end of a long shift in the screening room. I was about to go home, when a publicist invited us to stay and see The Invisible Man (which is part of a revival of a collection of classic Universal horror films). My colleagues and I looked at each other, shrugged, and trudged back into the dark little room for another 71 minutes of cinema. When I emerged, I was buzzing. The Invisible Man caused more of a stir in me than any of the new films I had seen that day.

What is our attraction to these ancient horror films? Surely they're not scary anymore. I don't think I was actually terrified in The Invisible Man. But there's something that's tantalizing anyway. Perhaps it's that we're spying on something fantastic that we're not meant to see. There have been movies with invisible creatures and other forbidden things since this, but usually they're moving too fast. Our nerves are more sensitive to a careful examination than to an explosion.

A good deal of the credit for the success of The Invisible Man goes to director James Whale, who was himself an outcast in Hollywood. He also directed the classic horror films Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Bride of Frankenstein -- all masterpieces. He directed a couple of dozen other "straight" films, but the horror films are the ones we remember. The reason is that Whale had a tender curiosity towards his creatures. He liked to explore what it was like to be different and horrifying in an ordinary world. He really spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be a Frankenstein monster or an invisible man. In one scene, the invisible man explains that it's difficult to go down stairs because you can't see your feet. The movie takes place in winter, in order to present the greatest challenge to the invisible man, who must remove his clothes in the freezing cold to be completely invisible.

The movie was adapted from the H.G. Wells novel by R.C. Sherriff and an uncredited Philip Wylie. These writers also deserve some credit for making the story fascinating first, then hoping the chills would come out of that.

Claude Rains stars as Jack Griffin, the scientist who invents the invisible serum. We don't actually see him until the end, so it was actually his voice that made his movie debut. It's a memorable performance. Gloria Stuart is also on hand, as Jack's long-suffering girlfriend. (We all know now who she is.) The great Una O'Connor, a staple in most of Whale's films, is on hand to screech and be the center of attention. Walter Brennan is the owner of the bike that gets stolen by Griffin, and he has one line. Apparently, John Carradine is around somewhere, but I didn't spot him.

The movie begins as Griffin, already invisible and fully bandaged, stumbles into an inn and takes a room. He is agitated and constantly badgers anyone who won't leave him alone. The townspeople begin to gang up on him. He leaves, finding refuge in the house of a colleague, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan). Griffin holds the colleague prisoner and makes him an accomplice. "We'll start with a few murders. Small men. Great men. Just to show we make no distinction." Griffin begins to grow more and more megalomaniacal. Attempts to capture him fail repeatedly. Finally, he is caught by leaving footprints in the snow. (Unfortunately, he leaves shoe-prints, when he is supposed to be barefoot.)

The Invisible Man is a wonderful, insightful, goofy, bizarre look at a strange case. Whale's fascination, charm, and affection really come through. He was like an early version of David Cronenberg -- not attempting to scare us outright, but simply trying to get inside his story and tell it as truthfully as possible.

The Invisible Man plays this October at the Castro in a double-bill with Karl Freund's The Mummy. Gods and Monsters, the fictional life story of Whale (played by Ian McKellen), also opens in October.

DVD Details: Universal has replaced its early DVD release with a massive, beautiful two-disc set containing the original film, plus four sequels (five films in all). The original film features a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer, a featurette, Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, and production photos. The sequels include: Joe May's The Invisible Man Returns (1940), starring Cedric Hardwicke and Vincent Price; Edward Sutherland's The Invisible Woman (1940), starring Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore and Charlie Ruggles; Edwin L. Marin's Invisible Agent (1942), starring Ilona Massey, Jon Hall, Peter Lorre and Hardwicke; and Ford Beebe's The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944), starring Hall, Leon Errol and John Carradine. Finally, the disc has an Invisible Agent theatrical trailer.

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