In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for “The Wolf Man” that was directed by George Waggner and premiered on 12 December, 1941.
This is the first of these “Universal Monster” pictures that was made in the 1940’s and even though it is a new decade, the level of quality of these films remains at an all time high. I must admit that my first viewing of this 1941 version of “The Wolf Man” happened after I had seen its 2010 remake. Unlike everyone else in the world, I loved the remake (with the exception of the CGI finale), and it forced me to finally sit down and watch the original. Imagine my surprise to find that the original was an even better film than its remake (I know, I know). This version is such a great film in all aspects and has quickly turned into one of my favourites.
Larry Talbot returns home to his family castle after an absence of eighteen years following the death of his brother in a hunting accident. Although basically strangers to one another, Larry and his father, Sir John, embrace heartedly and declare that they will bury the hatchet of their pasts and try to become friends on equal footing. Soon after his arrival in town, Larry happens to meet the daughter of the local antiques store and falls instantly in love with her. While attempting to woo Gwen, he ends up buying a unique walking stick complete with a silver wolf’s head on it’s top. The wolf’s head also has a strange star-like shape attached to it and when Larry asks about it significance, Gwen explains that it is the mark of the werewolf. Even though Larry finds the whole idea fantastic, he soon realizes that this sort of superstition is taken very seriously in this town. He succeeds in his task at getting a date with Gwen and organizes to meet her later that night. As protection against anything happening, Gwen brings along a friend, Jenny, with her on the date and the company of three head out to see some gypsies who have recently rode into town to have their fortunes read. Whilst at the gypsy’s camp, Jenny is brutally attacked by a wolf-like creature and Larry steps in to attempt to save her. Larry is able to kill the wolf although gets bitten in the attack, and his attempts to save Jenny turn out to be in vain. After the attack, Larry finds out that the thing he actually killed was a werewolf and that he too is now afflicted with the terrible curse of the werewolf, where he will unconsciously change into a wolf and head out for a victim to kill. Is anyone safe around Larry anymore?
I will say it again; “The Wolf Man” is a truly magnificent film. Everything about it is gold; from the look, the performances, the direction, the brilliant script and the spooky music score, it is very near perfect. I must admit that I am unfamiliar with director George Waggner’s work but it surprises me that he did not become a powerhouse director back in the 1940’s after “The Wolf Man” because his work is just stellar here. He creates a beautifully rich world here and fills it full of horror but never once forgets just how tragic the story and the character of Larry Talbot are. This is a dark tale and Waggner shows us this through the equally dark and atmospheric visuals. Combined with his cinematographer Joseph Valentine, Waggner has created a beautifully macabre environment for the wolf man to exist, but also an incredibly scary one. The scenes of the wolf man hunting through the fog-filled forests looking for prey are incredibly suspenseful and moody. It is obvious that they shot these scenes on a set but it doesn’t matter because that actually adds to the atmosphere of the scenes. Having the ability to control the light perfectly to either hide or expose the wolf’s features is a huge asset within these scenes and Waggner and Valentine take every opportunity to scare the audience. I must say that the attack sequences were also quite brutal for their time too.
As good as the direction is in “The Wolf Man” it is Curt Siodmak’s wonderfully rich script that is the film’s greatest asset. Siodmak has created some truly wonderful dialogue in this film and created the majority of the known werewolf legends such as the fact that a werewolf can only be killed by silver and if one is bitten by a werewolf and survives, he too shall become a werewolf. In regards to the dialogue who can forget the classic werewolf myth recited by a number of the characters in the film: "Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.". C’mon, you have got to admit that that is just genius and having thespians the like of Claude Rains sprouting such dialogue only elevates it to an even higher stature. As entertaining a yarn as “The Wolf Man” is, the story is full of subtext mostly in regards to Siodmak’s own dealings with the Nazi’s in his homeland of Germany. The wolf man actually is a cipher for both the depiction of Nazi’s and of Siodmak’s life under the Nazi regime. In regards to it being a depiction of the Nazi’s this is because Larry is basically a good man who is turned into a killing machine and sees his next victim via the image of a pentagram (think the “star of David” that Jews were forced to wear). As for this being a veiled depiction of Siodmak’s memories whilst being under Nazi rule, he mentioned that his life was like that of Larry Talbot’s, he was living a normal life when it was suddenly thrown into chaos and he found himself constantly on the run trying to survive. All of this is interesting stuff, but even if you do not pick up on any of it, “The Wolf Man” is such a beautifully written tale that you still get a great film out of the surface tale.
Larry Talbot and the wolf man are played by Lon Chaney Jr. Being a huge fan of silent films and particularly those directed by Tod Browning, it is fair to say that I am a huge Lon Chaney Snr. Fan. He was a true genius of the medium who was incredibly physical in all of his roles. He always gave 100% in anything he did, pushing his body to the limit many times. Unfortunately I do not think his son is anywhere near as talented, but I will say that he too gives his all to this film. While Chaney Jr. is good in the role, he just always looks like he is acting and that it does not come easy to him. Particularly as Larry, he does look at times a little uncomfortable in the role, however when he becomes the vicious wolf man, he truly does own the role. I will say that he never forgets how tragic a character Larry is and plays him like this, it is just I can always see him “acting”. What he is great at though is the physical side of the role and he uses his size to great advantage, especially in a scene where he intimidates some locals.
I mentioned in my review for “The Invisible Man” my love for Claude Rains as an actor, and again, he steals the show here. Rains has the non-flashy role of Sir John Tolbot and dominates every scene he is in. It is interesting to watch the scenes he has with Chaney Jr because even though Chaney’s stature is huge compared to Rains diminutive appearance; it is always Rains that comes across as having the greater strength. His smooth and nuanced way of delivering dialogue is just masterful and although it is a cliché, I could honestly sit and listen to him reading the phone book. Acting just comes so naturally to him and because of this I believe every word that he is saying. He just commands the screen and is instantly charismatic; your eyes are just drawn to him. As I mentioned, Sir Talbot is not a flashy role, but Claude Rains makes it forever memorable.
Another one of the “Universal Monsters” legends also shows up in “The Wolf Man”, albeit in a small role. Bela Lugosi plays the doomed werewolf that Larry kills near the start of the film and he is wonderful. He plays the gypsy full of emotion and despair as he understands that he is going to be the cause of another murder and there is nothing he can do to stop it. There is a sadness behind his eyes here that is heartbreaking and you assume his death at the hands of Talbot would offer the poor man some relief. I also cannot fail to mention just how good Maria Ouspenskaya is as Bela’s mother. She understands the pain and risks involved in being a werewolf and never once attempts to go for revenge against Larry for the death of her son, instead she becomes an understanding mentor to the troubled man.
Once again I have to mention the brilliant make-up effects by genius Jack Pierce. Here he has created the definitive werewolf which at the time of the film’s release terrified movie goers. While the transformation scene, made up entirely of dissolves, may seem dated and primitive now, back in the 1940’s people were horrified as they witnessed a man change into a wolf before their very eyes. Interestingly, the famous scene of the wolf man’s face changing via dissolves does not exist in this film (it shows up in the films sequel), as all transformations into the wolf were shown via Talbot’s feet. Seriously, you have to wonder just how successful these “Universal Monsters” films would have been without the talents of Jack Pierce. It is my belief that his dedication, expertise and extreme attention to detail in all of his make-ups are the unsung reasons to the success of these films.
Overall, “The Wolf Man” is a terrific film and one of the best of the entire “Universal Monsters” canon. The commanding performance from Claude Rains is the standout but really, everyone performs admirably in the film. Behind the camera, George Waggner does fantastic work directorially, but it is Curt Siodmak’s brilliantly layered screenplay that is the key to the success of “The Wolf Man”. It is such a beautiful and yet deeply tragic story about the duality of man and that the fact that inside each of us, is the power to commit evil. I cannot recommend “The Wolf Man” enough and is a film that will get regularly re-watched in my own home.