The Invisible Man
Celebrating the British influence in Universal’s Classic Monster stable, Johnny Restall explores James Whale’s 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man…
A woman runs screaming down a deserted rural road. Moments later, a pair of trousers, apparently possessed by a life of their own, skip jauntily along behind her singing the nursery rhyme ‘Nuts in May.’ Simultaneously unnerving and hilarious, it could only be a scene from The Invisible Man (US, James Whale, 1933) – probably the greatest film ever made about a transparent nudist terrorising the English countryside.
When Universal Studios decided to make Dracula (US, Tod Browning, 1931), they were viewed by many industry insiders as taking something of a risk. Despite some previous silent film successes, it was uncertain how American audiences would respond to a full-blooded home-grown horror ‘talkie.’ In the event, the overwhelmingly positive response at the box office ensured that the studio was keen to produce more in the genre. Frankenstein (US, James Whale, 1931) proved that Dracula’s success was no fluke, and set Universal’s classic monster film cycle in motion. It also cemented the status of its director, the English-born Whale, who became one of the most idiosyncratic and celebrated talents of 1930s cinema, and made an icon of Boris Karloff’s misunderstood creature.
Eager to add to their growing horror collection, Universal purchased the rights to H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man (C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, 1897). Along with The Time Machine (Heinemann, 1895) and The War of the Worlds (Heinemann, 1898), the novel had made Wells’ reputation as a master of the plausibly fantastical, as well as helping to define the emerging genre of science fiction. Cannily, the author insisted on retaining script approval as part of the deal.
Despite their guarantee to Wells, Universal were initially more interested in the title and the prestige of the author than in a faithful adaptation of the work. Several divergent scripts were written and rejected, and Karloff, initially proposed as the star, left the project. The versatile Whale was persuaded to direct, despite his apparent reservations over being typecast in horror. The writer R.C. Sherriff (best known for his 1928 play Journey’s End, whose stage success under Whale’s hand had first brought the director to Hollywood’s attention) authored a fresh script which finally won Wells’ approval by broadly adhering to his original story.
The Invisible Man tells the tale of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), an ambitious chemist who discovers how to make himself invisible. Unfortunately, he cannot find a corresponding formula to reverse the process. Fleeing from discovery, he hides in the country, hoping to work on his experiments in peace and secrecy. The curiosity of the locals, suspicious of the mysterious stranger staying in rooms at the inn, ensures that his plans are derailed into madness and murder.
Perhaps surprisingly for a film made by a large American studio, The Invisible Man retains Wells’ quaint setting in the real West Sussex village of Iping. Indeed, for a film set in modern times (by 1933’s standards) and containing a threat with potentially global consequences, it is remarkably intimate and English, revelling in small eccentricities and a host of knowingly over-the-top stereotypes. The patrons of The Lion’s Head pub are a sea of weather-worn caricatures, telling saucy jokes and flamboyantly dropping their aitches until Griffin’s appearance briefly shocks them into silence. The local policeman, Jaffers (E.E. Clive), is the very picture of long-faced, pompous, and unflappable authority, diagnosing the outlandish problem confronting him with the ridiculously deadpan: ‘E’s invisible, that’s what’s the matter with ‘im.’ Special mention must be made of Una O’Connor as Mrs Hall, the publican’s wife – she does not so much chew the scenery as swallow it whole, constantly gurning and shrieking in an outstanding effort to steal every single scene she has. Her interactions with Griffin are priceless, remaining comically oblivious to his growing rage at her tactlessly voluble attentions.
The film takes a distinctly malevolent glee in overturning its orderly, staid setting once Griffin’s reign of terror begins. He steals bicycles, smashes windows, and hurls respectable citizens down the stairs. However, his mischief becomes increasingly sadistic as the narrative progresses, lending the impish tone a thread of genuinely vicious malice. Griffin’s vocal threat to ‘rob and rape and kill!’ remains shockingly blunt – had the film been released the following year, when the censorship measures of the Hay’s Code began to be strictly enforced, it seems unlikely the line would have survived.
Considering that Griffin is either invisible or entirely disguised for most of the duration, a remarkable voice was required in order to bring his character to life. The role was the Hollywood debut of the London-born Rains, and it is almost impossible to overstate just how much his silky, deliciously menacing vocal performance contributes to the film’s success. He seizes the part with both invisible hands, wringing every ounce of madness, pathos, and fury from his rich and highly quotable dialogue. Where Wells’ character was dangerous but relatively sane, the script takes Griffin into complete megalomania (blaming his increasing derangement on a drug used in his experiments). The infectious relish Rains brings to his character’s wild speeches is both unnerving and hugely entertaining. By the time he proudly proclaims: ‘Even the Moon’s frightened of me!’, his delusions have become both hilarious and oddly pitiful in their total lack of perspective.
Of course, The Invisible Man cannot rely on voice alone to convince its audience. John P. Fulton’s visual effects have weathered the years extraordinarily well, with many truly ingenious trick shots. His painstaking process involved wrapping the areas of the body to be ‘invisible’ in dark cloth, shooting against a black velvet backdrop, and then splicing it together with footage of the actual background to achieve a see-through effect. Griffin’s disguise, in dark glasses, bandages, and a false nose, has become iconic, contrastingly particularly beautifully with the blandly domestic pyjamas-and-bathrobe ensemble he adopts halfway through. His ‘face’, usually shot from a low angle in close up, is sinisterly effective, especially when he removes his glasses to reveal the blank holes where his eyes should be. The costume design (sadly uncredited) expertly visualises one of the great paradoxes of the story: Griffin’s disguises actually work to draw attention to him, while his vulnerable naked state offers almost perfect concealment.
Like the novel, the film is keen to discuss the practicalities and difficulties posed by the state of invisibility. Griffin has to rest after eating, as food remains visible inside him until digested; he cannot work in rain or fog without showing an outline; and stairs are harder for him to navigate, now that he cannot see his own feet. The book’s confident if scientifically dubious explanation of exactly how invisibility is obtained is disregarded however, beyond vague references to injecting a chemical formula beneath the skin.
Sherriff’s script adds the character of Griffin’s fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) and makes her chemist father Dr Cranley (Henry Travers) into his negligent employer. Stuart makes the best of her sympathetic but fairly thankless part, forced to rely on the lacklustre help of her indifferent father and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) in her devoted search for her missing betrothed. Intriguingly, Kemp is portrayed as a cowardly, selfish fool in the film, in contrast to the more upstanding character of Wells’ original story. This decision robs the adaptation of anything approaching a traditional hero, allowing Griffin to retain centre stage as a kind of monstrous anti-hero, far superior to the blunderers around him in terms of intelligence and charisma. In some ways, this furthers the subversive elements implicit in Whale’s Frankenstein, even if a price is still eventually paid for having ‘meddled in things men should leave alone.’ The scientist and the monster are now united in one as an even stronger focal point for audience identification, the ‘safe’ romantic choice in the love triangle this time is not just dull but a snivelling lecher, and the heroine ends up entirely deprived of a happy ending.
The similarly velvet-voiced Vincent Price stepped into the lead role in The Invisible Man Returns (US, Joe May, 1940), the first of several increasingly loosely linked sequels produced by Universal during the following decade. By the late 1940s, the character was sharing the ignoble fate of several of the other classic monsters – reduced to being played for laughs, with a cameo in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (US, Charles Barton, 1948) before headlining Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (US, 1951, Charles Lamont). Variations on the theme have returned to the screen since, including Memoirs of an Invisible Man (US, John Carpenter, 1992) and Hollow Man (US, Paul Verhoeven, 2000). More recently, Blumhouse Productions turned the expected story on its head by focusing on the plight of the titular character’s intended victim in The Invisible Man (US, Leigh Whannell, 2020). For my money, however, none of these have quite captured the ingenuity, wit, and sheer ghoulish joy of Whale’s outstanding original. Nearly ninety years after its first release, it remains an absolute pleasure and surely stands as one of the finest entries in the classic Universal Monsters series.