Written by R.C. Sherriff
Directed by James Whale
Starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor
US Release Nov. 13, 1933
RT 71 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Although I often feel like other people don’t see me, particularly when I’m driving, I wonder what it would feel like to be truly invisible. I’d use the power mostly to infiltrate conversations so that I could witness what someone really talks about when I’m not present. While I would probably play a few harmless pranks, I don’t think I’d do anything malicious.
When he literally becomes transparent in the 1933 Universal classic, The Invisible Man, Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) sets his sights on something more grand: ruling the world. The problem is, the formula he invented is also driving him crazy, so he mostly succeeds only at wreaking havoc in the village where he’s hiding and has set up an impromptu laboratory.
Griffin is a different kind of “mad scientist” than Henry Frankenstein. They both suffer variations of a God Complex, but while Frankenstein wants to create life, Griffin remains grounded in the here and now. Plus, Frankenstein lives to regret his actions; Griffin does not. He has literally been driven mad and there is no hope for him, certainly not with the additional pressure of being the victim of a manhunt.
Nearly an hour into the movie, Griffin finally does some real damage, derailing a train and robbing a bank, but, hey, he gives the money away on the street outside. With constant maniacal laughter, I never felt Griffin was a terribly dangerous guy in The Invisible Man. I was more scared of him in the quiet moments, such as when he exacts his revenge on the colleague who betrayed him.
That would be Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), whom Griffin blackmails to assist him and soon becomes nearly as unhinged as Griffin. He tells Kemp that it was just a scientific experiment at first, to do something no one ever had, but “Suddenly I realized the power I held.” Then, “I must have a partner, Kemp, a visible partner to help me with the little things.”
“We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there.” This is why I have trouble with taking Griffin seriously: his “reign of terror” consists mostly of running through the village stealing hats. And his malice becomes petty; he becomes more enraged when he learns that the constable thinks he’s a hoax. Rather than simply enacting a plan, he’s reacting to demonstrate how dangerous he is.
Rains is very good in the role of Jack Griffin, especially considering his face is either wrapped in bandages or invisible until the very end of the movie. He compensates with gestures and movements that perfectly convey the stature of a madman. I just think he goes a little far with the laughter. Perhaps it’s exaggerated during the scenes where we can’t see him, just so we can track where he is.
The Invisible Man shares another theme with Frankenstein, although more overt. There’s a love triangle among Griffin, Kemp and Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart). Kemp is more outspoken about his desire for Cranley to be with him than Victor Moritz was with Elizabeth; however, the women always seem to like the bad boys better. She sticks up for Griffin to his very end, naively thinking he can be redeemed.
The special effects remain amazing considering this is a 1933 production. They’re at their best when Griffin is unwrapping his bandages to reveal nothing is there (“he’s all eaten away”), but suffer a little from some unfortunate “outlining” when clothing is moving around the room. Objects move a little too steadily, also, but when you let your imagination take it from there, the power of The Invisible Man is limitless.