During Hollywood’s Golden Age starting in the early 1930s, the distinguished British actor Claude Rains (1889-1967) was the quintessential ensemble supporting actor. While he rarely had a leading part, he always added a significant contribution to each film he acted through his richly memorable performances. Although he never won an Oscar, he did receive four nominations for best supporting actor.
Recall for a moment several of his outstanding and truly memorable roles: Captain Louis Renault in Michael Curtis’ “Casablanca,” the jealous spy Alex Sebastian in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” or the distinguished Senator Joseph Paine in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Recall the noble Prince John in Michael Curtis’ “The Adventures of Robin Hood” or Mr. Jordan in Alexander Hall’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” and even his small role as Mr. Dryden in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
In Rains’ second feature film made in 1933, noted as his American film debut, he played the lead character in the classic James Whale’s mystery-horror film “The Invisible Man.” This film was based on H. G. Wells’ 1897 famous science fiction novel, adapted by R. C. Sherriff and featuring groundbreaking special effects by John P. Fulton.
And while there is a recently released remake of this story, which many of us cannot see at this time, starring Elizabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, I thought taking a new look at the original film version of this fascinating story would be intriguing since most remakes are usually quite disappointing by contract to its initial source. This original film is an incredibly sparse 71-minute film.
Whale’s film begins on a dark, snowy night as a mysterious man appears at the local Lion Head Inn in the English village of Iping. This man appears in a black coat, hat, large dark glasses and gloves, and his face is wrapped in bandages. He asks for a room and a warm fireplace. Once he’s given a room by the innkeeper, he requests to be left alone and not disturbed. Other bar patrons suspect he’s a criminal on the run who has been wounded or scared by a horrible accident.
Soon we learn the mysterious man is actually the distinguished chemist Jack Griffin, whose former boss and mentor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) is concerned with Jack’s disappearance without a word and because Dr. Cranley’s daughter, Flora (Gloria Stuart) is Jack’s fiancée. Jack was involved in secret controversial experiments involving an experimental serum drug “monocane.”
When the innkeeper and his wife become frustrated that Griffin has turned his room into a cluttered, makeshift chemistry laboratory, and he fails to pay rent, they plan to evict him. Griffin becomes angry with these threats, and when the police come to arrest him, he begins unwrapping his bandages to reveal his ghostly invisible form. He declares that his magic serum gave him this power of invisibility. He screams, “The invisible man can rule the world! Nobody will see him come. Nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, rape and kill.” Thus starts the invisible man’s reign of terror, and he kills a police investigator, attacks his many of his pursuers, derails a train and robs a bank.
After he escapes village police, Griffin seeks help from a former colleague, Dr. Arthur Kemp, who reveals that monocane is a terrible drug made from flowers grown in India and was once used experimentally on animals.
Kemp soon contacts Dr. Cranley and his daughter hoping they can talk sense to Griffin, but things spiral out of control and the police double their efforts to hunt down this threatening killer.
In one of the film’s more ingenious scenes exploring its rather primitive special effects, the invisible Griffin attacks Kemp is his car, quickly gaging and tying him up before sending his car off the road and over a steep hillside.
And while the impressive Rains is only seen completely for several brief moments, his distinctive voice effectively adds to his character’s menacing persona. “The Invisible Man” can now be seen in a beautiful new, restored print on Blu-ray. So, while everyone is temporarily sheltered in place and can’t venture out to see the newly released version of this H. G. Wells tale, hunt down, stream and explore this compelling early Hollywood gem.