The Invisible Man (U.S., James Whale)
There isn’t a more compelling or stylish horror/thriller from the 1930s than James Whale’s The Invisible Man, a movie I consider better than classics like Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House. Whale (and a laundry list of screenwriters) was smart enough to skip all the boring background and jump right into what we came to see: an invisible man playing havoc with the world. We don’t care about all the boring experiments and gradual mental deterioration, especially when we already know exactly where it is going. (It’s hard to avoid that when they put it in their title.) So the movie begins with scientist Jack Griffin already invisible, covered from head to foot in a hat, gloves, dark glasses, and bandages covering skin that should still be visible so as not to betray his non-visual-friendly state. Taking a room at an isolated country inn to continue his research and, hopefully, become visible again, the mysterious man makes life miserable for the innkeeper and his wife (Forrester Harvey and, in a treasure of camp, Una O’Connor). Upon trying to evict him, Griffin reveals his invisibility and assaults the inn keeper and anyone else who tries to apprehend him. The police are called in, but Griffin strips down nude and escapes killing an officer in the process.
What has happened to the once respected Dr. Griffin? His colleague and friend Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) investigates discovering a partial list of the chemicals he used for his formula including one that causes insanity. The race then intensifies to catch the man as he becomes more dangerous both to himself and others.
This is a wonderfully effective movie that takes substantial risks that pay off. There is no traditional protagonist in the picture. Kemp would seem to be the obvious choice, but he turns out to be a rather gutless lead. And the obligatory romance is stunted: Griffin spends most of the movie invisible and insane and has little time to spend with his grieving fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) between all the killing and robbing. We do have to sit through Henry Travers playing a mentor of both Kemp and Griffin, but he is sadly miscast; he delivers his lines with so little confidence that we can never take him seriously. Despite this glaring casting flaw, the rest of the movie shines in an almost non-stop chase for the invisible killer.
The leading man and the romance are eliminated because Rains’ Griffin is really the protagonist despite all the crimes he commits. He stands for everything we fantasize about doing if we were suddenly blessed (or cursed?) with invisibility. Who hasn’t wished to be invisible at some time or other? The things we could see, the secrets we could learn. (I’m reminded of Mia Farrow in Alice using the invisibility potion to spy on people in her life.) The warning of Whale’s movie though is where would we draw the line? Once we have eavesdropped on a private conversation or peeked at someone in the shower, what would prevent us from taking another step across that moral and ethical line to theft? And once we became addicted to the power afforded us by invisibility can we honestly say we wouldn’t also protect our privilege with physical violence? The movie uses the insanity-causing chemical to vitiate Griffin’s guilt so he can have a moment of redemption at the end, but was the introduction of that compound even necessary? I don’t think so because based on human nature anyone who becomes addicted to the power afforded by invisibility would more than likely react in a similar fashion.
The strength of this movie is its confidence in obliging us to identify with a madman who, incidentally, we don’t see for most of the picture. It is always gratifying to see a filmmaker subvert our movie-going expectations in ways that enrich our understanding of both what is happening on the screen and in the world around us. The Invisible Man is an unlikely candidate for such lofty cinematic goals but it does succeed, making it one of the best movies of 1933.