If you think I’m going to tell you what The Invisible Man is about, you’ve come to the wrong place. However, I would urge you to revisit the film, often the rather unloved oik of Universal’s Golden Age, due mostly to a raft of lesser sequels but, more pertinently, shoddy modern re-workings.
How better to start any film than in the quintessential English pub – even more thrilling, a 1933 interpretation of a Victorian inn? In spite of (or maybe because of) the inclement winter weather, The Lion’s Head of The Invisible Man is packed with thirsty patrons and the whole place is a buzzing with almost irresistibly super revelry and grot . The scene initially serves to remind us of the absurdity and grave danger of the sport (yes, sport) of darts in a public house. Here, bowler-hatted and be-suited chaps don’t just take aim but practically take a run up to throw the lethal projectiles at a primitive board mounted on a wooden pillar – thought out long enough to not even block off the walkway behind it. We must assume serious injury was a frequent event, one accepted as par for the course and possibly worth extra points on the scoreboard.
Although, understandably, fine ales seem to be the beverage of choice, the eye is drawn somewhat to the bottle of port perched at the end of the bar. I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone purchase port in a pub. I’m not fond of it, though have nothing personal against it, but considering the rather scant selection of alcoholic drinks on offer, it seems a somewhat bold move. Other spirits are evidently poured straight from the cask, the pleasingly small barrels behind the bar labelled gin, rum, cognac and rye – immediately, there’s nothing more I want to do than go to my local and request a double rye.
When the bandaged Dr Jack Griffin enters the inn, he is greeted with the now horror standard of immediate silence and the glare of suspicion. Is this because of his odd attire? Is it because no-one can tell who it is? Possibly, though more likely it is because he’s the only person in the place not smoking. The bullish stance of the professional smoker is assumed by every gentleman in the establishment, not only attached to the mouth like lips and teeth but stapled there securely whilst they talk to their colleagues. Holding the cigarette twixt fingers? Laughable, the smoking apparel and person must assimilate as one titanic human, billowing fog in the face of chancers and the lily-livered. To assert his position, the barkeep patrols his domain with pipe in situ. Again, no hands required, the jaw of a giant.
Amidst the tankards, steins and James Finlayson-quality moustaches are some truly extraordinary faces – no pearl-skinned Hollywood rakes or damsels but crooked, stained and scant-toothed visages – a true glimpse at everyday folk and their anyway faces. There’s a terrific gag involving a pianola that works entirely because of the no nonsense demeanour of the patrons. The biggest laugh that can be had is to shame the indulgent plum-snouted gent pretending to be a master of the ivories but not out of malice, merely to clear the lungs for more smoke and to request further drinks.
Una O’Connor’s outrageous performance as landlady Jenny Hall may still raise derision in many quarters but that does at once suggest that you’re otherwise taking a film that sees floating trousers, spinning coppers and removable noses seriously. The Invisible Man is packed with actors flaunting everything they’ve got in an industry which had already established itself as dominant in Western culture but also a genre that clearly had legs. If you wanted work, you had to earn it. This was still a time when those more acquainted with the treading of the theatrical boards of the previous century were sampling the experience of film for the first time. What genuine thrills are to be had by seeing such robust names as Dudley Digges, Merle Tottenham, E.E.Clive and Forrester Harvey on the cast-list. No compromise. If E.E.Clive was to play the local bobby (Constable Jaffers, another zinging name!) on the beat with sufficient grit and verve, then nothing less than eye-popping, droopy demeanour and lines as sparkling as “What’s all this?..’ow can I ‘andcuff a bloomin’shirt?” will do.
Poor Claude Rains (once more, a pause to savour his name). Without a single opportunity to raise an eyebrow, furrow the brow or wink impudently, he carries the film proper by sonorous tones alone. “You’re CRAZY to know who I am!” he barks at the assembled throng, offering his fake nose as “a souvenir”. Indeed, it is probably still the film he is best known for, though he is unlikely to be spotted by an equal number in an identity parade. Griffin’s magnificent scientific breakthrough is balanced narratively by the side-effect of him being driven mad…but has he? What else would any right thinking person do if put in the same circumstance other than sabotage, sex or murder? In fact, sex is largely avoided, leaving Griffin to concentrate solely on japery – pushing a pram over; knocking hats off; tweaking noses – and murder.
The death count in The Invisible Man ranks head and shoulders above any other Universal horror film of the era. No dull, cape-swishing pecks; no pained assaults of the cursed; no crushing of misunderstood reanimated corpses – we see very clearly at least four killings on screen (“I killed a stupid little policeman – smashed his head in”) but most impressively, after strangling a signalman, the derailing of a passenger train, the startled screams suggesting a great many perishing in one fell swoop. The death toll in total could be in the hundreds. All this whilst still, on the occasions he isn’t completely invisible (meaning the villain of the piece is completely nude…probably a subject for another time) wearing outfits of the most impressive kind – the luxurious smoking jacket and, still now, possibly the most roaringly magnificent sunglasses ever seen on screen – a pair of 19th century spectacles with side lenses – are style icons that many would still pay handsomely for.
The Invisible Man has aged well, given that it wasn’t depicting present day even at the time. The effects are still a triumph and structurally the film is nigh on perfect, beginning with the protagonist already ‘changed’ and at full speed thereon-in. There are no debuting extras on this new presentation but who wants to see more chattering heads wittering on about subtexts anyway? It’s not the best Universal horror but it’s very close.