The Invisible Man (1933) reviews and overview

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The Invisible Man is a 1933 science fiction film based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The Invisible Man, published in 1897, as adapted by R. C. Sherriff, Philip Wylie and Preston Sturges, whose work was considered unsatisfactory and who was taken off the project.

The film was directed by James Whale (Frankenstein; The Old Dark HouseBride of Frankenstein) and stars Claude Rains, in his first American screen appearance, and Gloria Stuart. It is considered one of the great Universal Horror films of the 1930s, and spawned a number of sequels, plus many spinoffs using the idea of an “invisible man” that were largely unrelated to Wells’ original story.

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Rains portrayed the Invisible Man (Doctor Jack Griffin) mostly only as a disembodied voice. Rains is only shown clearly for a brief time at the end of the film, spending most of his on-screen time covered by bandages. In 2008 The Invisible Man was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Claude Rains delivers a remarkable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible. Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives at a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery. However, the same drug which renders him invisible slowly drives him to commit acts of unspeakable terror.

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Cast and characters:

  • Claude Rains as Doctor Jack Griffin – The Invisible Man
  • Gloria Stuart as Flora Cranley
  • William Harrigan as Doctor Arthur Kemp
  • Henry Travers as Doctor Cranley
  • Una O’Connor as Jenny Hall
  • Forrester Harvey as Herbert Hall
  • Holmes Herbert as Chief of Police
  • E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers
  • Duddley Digges as Chief Detective
  • Harry Stubbs as Inspector Bird
  • Donald Stuart as Inspector Lane
  • Merle Tottenham as Millie

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The Invisible Man had a particularly troublesome birth; Universal had attempted no fewer than 14 times previously to bring HG Wells’s character to the screen, none of which had made it past the written word. By 1932, a suitable script was readied, perhaps surprisingly, very close to the original novel, particularly considering the artistic license that was given to the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula.

Sadly, the difficulties did not stop there. Boris Karloff was originally earmarked for the lead but turned down the role through a combination of salary and vanity; starring role or not, Karloff would only be seen for seconds at the end of the film. The role was passed around many leading stars of the day, notably pausing lingeringly at Frankenstein star Colin Clive but it was a virtual unknown, Claude Rains who would eventually win the role.

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It was to be Rains’ first speaking role on film – in truth, he was largely considered to be something of a ham, wildly gesticulating with his hands, rather stuck in the over-dramatic delivery of the silent age. What saved him and his career, was his somewhat thrillingly English voice, almost otherworldly alien to an American audience but strangely neck-twisting even to an English ear. For an actor with a voice so alluring and able to express himself so clearly without even being seen, his failings became his saviour.

The film is known for its clever and groundbreaking visual effects by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, whose work is often credited for the success of the film. When the Invisible Man had no clothes on, the effect was achieved through the use of wires, but when he had some of his clothes on or was taking his clothes off, the effect was achieved by shooting Claude Rains in a completely black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining this shot with another shot of the location the scene took place in using a matte process. Claude Rains was claustrophobic and it was hard to breathe through the suit. Consequently, the work was especially difficult for him, and a double, who was somewhat shorter than Rains, was sometimes used.

The effect of Rains seeming to disappear was created by making a head and body cast of the actor, from which a mask was made. The mask was then photographed against a specially prepared background, and the film was treated in the laboratory to complete the effect.

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The Invisible Man was named by the New York Times as one of the Ten Best Films of 1933 but H. G. Wells, the author of the book the film was based on, said at a dinner in its honour, that “while he liked the picture he had one grave fault to find with it. It had taken his brilliant scientist and changed him into a lunatic, a liberty he could not condone.” James Whale replied that the film was addressed to the “rationally minded motion picture audience,” because “in the minds of rational people only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway.”

In the original novel, the scientist was amoral from the start and did not hesitate to rob his own father [who consequently commits suicide] to get the money to buy certain drugs, etc., for the invisibility process. In the movie, an essential colour-removing drug in the process had the unavoidable side-effect of unbalancing his mind. Despite his misgivings, Wells did praise the performance of Una O’Connor as the shrieking Mrs Hall.

Claude Rains’ film career took off after The Invisible Man, which was his first American film appearance.

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Despite the dizzying number of sequels and imitators, The Invisible Man’s reputation is perhaps less than it truly deserves. Rains revels in the role and is ably supported by a very likeable cast, none more so than the always terrific Una O’Connor.

It’s a genuinely creepy film and is terrifically paced, not a second wasted. The effects more than stand up today, putting to shame any number of recent CGI efforts. Considering one of the Invisible Man’s ‘pranks’ is to cause a full commuter train to career off a high bridge, presumably with all lives lost, it can be argued that he’s actually the character from the Golden Age of Universal with the most killings under his belt.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA

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Sequels and remakes:

  • The Invisible Man Returns (1940) stars Vincent Price as a man accused of murder who uses the invisibility formula to clear his name. The film was well received by critics and audiences alike.
  • The Invisible Woman (1940) used the concept to create a slickly made screwball comedy with Virginia Bruce and John Barrymore.
  • Invisible Agent (1942) is a blatantly patriotic World War II adventure yarn with Jon Hall using invisibility to fight the Nazis.
  • The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) stars Jon Hall once again, but has no relation to Invisible Agent. Hall plays an escaped fugitive who is injected with the invisibility formula.
  • In the post-War era, Universal’s stable of once-frightening movie monsters appeared in comedies that parodied the horror genre. The first, and most successful, was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Vincent Price makes a voice-only cameo appearance as the Invisible Man at the very end of the film. The comedy duo went on to make the highly popular Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), which was a modified remake of The Invisible Man Returns.
  • The Invisible Man (1958) is a British television series that ran for 26 episodes.
  • The Invisible Man (1976) is a short-lived, 13-episode TV series on NBC that contemporized the story. David McCallum was the titular star.
  • Gemini Man (1976) was the second attempt by the NBC network to turn the concept into an adventure series. It lasted only 11 episodes.
  • The Invisible Man (1984) is a six-part television miniseries produced by the BBC in England that remained faithful to the original novel.
  • Son of the Invisible Man is a spoof sequence from the comedy sketch anthology Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) which parodies the James Whale movie.
  • The Invisible Kid (1988), and The Invisible Maniac (1990) are both juvenile comedies that failed to find an audience and were quickly forgotten.
  • Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), directed by John Carpenter, is a special effects-laden film starring Chevy Chase. It was a critical and box office disappointment.
  • The Invisible Man (2000–2002) was produced in the U.S. by the Sci Fi Channel and ran for 46 episodes. Scenes from the original Invisible Man movie appear in the opening narration.
  • Hollow Man (2000) is a science fiction thriller film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, and Josh Brolin, and was inspired by Wells’ story. A direct-to-video sequel, Hollow Man 2, was released in 2006.
  • The Invisible Man is a French animated series.

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