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Invisible Man, The

Entry updated 7 August 2022. Tagged: Film, TV.

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1. Film (1933). Universal. Directed by James Whale. Cast includes with small roles for Walter Brennan, John Carradine, E E Clive, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers. Written by R C Sherriff and Philip Wylie, based on The Invisible Man (1897) by H G Wells. 71 minutes. Black and white.

As in all of Whale's sf films, Wells's tale is conveyed swiftly, with fluid expressionist chiaroscuro effects tellingly evident from the first shot, which – following its source exactly – opens on the disguised and masked Jack Griffin (Rains) struggling alone through a snowstorm to the small village where the action will essentially be confined. Griffin encounters there two kinds of community, from both of which he is fatally isolated: the representative users of the pub where he takes rooms, who are conveyed with guardedly undemure Hogarthian vigour; and the local police, who are both comic butts and reassuring evidences that a social and moral order continues to exist. Members of Whale's informal repertory company represent both communities: Jenny Hall (O'Connor) as the landlady; and Constable Jaffers (Clive).

Griffin almost immediately shows signs of mental imbalance. His employer Dr Cranley (Travers) later reveals to the impotently sly Dr Arthur Kemp (Harrigan) that Griffin, while searching for the secret of Invisibility, has taken a Drug which whitens the skin but turns its user into a Mad Scientist with a lust for power: I will be able to "sweep the world with invisible armies", he proclaims, as do so many similarly aspirational figures out of Scientific Romance. "Power! Power to make the world grovel at my feet". Wearing black goggles over a face wrapped in bandages, he is uncannily menacing, while at the same time his mask seems to pantomime the more humane emotions he can no longer permit himself to utter. He engages in a series of gratuitous murders (John P Fulton's special effects are very sophisticated, and were widely imitated), including the sadistic killing of Kemp, who has been bothering Cranley's daughter Flora (Stuart) despite her avowed love for Griffin. Finally he is traced to a barn, where he lies asleep. Another snowstorm has come; the police set the barn afire; in attempting to escape, his footprints in the snow betray his presence, and he is shot and taken to hospital. With Flora by his side, he dies. At the point of death he becomes visible again: this death mask (Rains's face finally visible) is Byronic.

There are touches of black comedy throughout, manifesting a distinctly European cast of mind (which Carl Laemle, Jr of Universal Pictures clearly did not wish to tame). But the toxically normalizing, Clichéd portrait of the Scientist as over-reacher – Griffin's last words are "I meddled in things that Man must leave alone" – is contextualized by a Wellsian acuteness about the costs of solitude, even in the muddle of the England he so loathed. Twenty-first century viewers of the film may experience an extrinsic frisson through the later renown, in very different roles, of two of its cast: Henry Travers (1874-1965) played the angel Clarence in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Gloria Stuart (1910-2010) played Old Rose in James Cameron's Titanic (1997). [JC]

2. Universal's progressively inferior and silly variations on the theme – not true sequels – were The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), The Invisible Agent (1942), The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Over 30 other films use the invisibility theme, some crediting Wells's novel as a source. A non-Universal use of the theme as Children's SF is The Invisible Boy (1957).

3. UK tv series (1958-1959). ATV. Created and produced by Ralph Smart. Writers included Philip Levene. Cast includes Lisa Daniely, Tim Turner (voice) and Deborah Watling. Two seasons, 26 25-minute episodes. Black and white.

In this un-Wells-like version, the unfortunate hero divides his time between seeking an antidote for his invisible condition and fighting crime. Other regular include his sister (Daniely) and niece (Watling).

4. US tv series (1975-1976). Universal TV for NBC. Created and produced by Harve Bennett, Steve Bochco. Directors included Robert Michael Lewis, Alan Levi, Sigmund Neufeld Jr. Writers included Bochco, James D Parriott. One season, 75-minute pilot plus 12 50-minute episodes. Colour.

David McCallum stars as a scientist who discovers a way of turning himself invisible but cannot regain visibility. A plastic-surgeon friend makes him a skin-coloured mask identical with his pre-invisibility face. The pilot episode concerns his attempts to keep the formula from the military; in later episodes the plots revolve, tepidly, around his work as a secret agent.

5. US tv series as Gemini Man (1976). The above series had mediocre ratings, so in 1976 Universal replaced McCallum with Ben Murphy, changed the title to Gemini Man, and started the story again from the beginning. One season, 75-minute pilot plus 11 50-minute episodes (only 5 broadcast by NBC). Colour.

Murphy plays a secret agent who can control his invisibility with a wristwatch-like device, but can remain safely invisible for only 15 minutes a day. This version flopped, too, and was cancelled before all completed episodes were shown. The producer, Harve Bennett, was having greater success elsewhere with The Six Million Dollar Man.

6. UK tv serialization (1984). BBC1. Adaptation of the original Wells novel by James Andrew Hall. Produced by Barry Letts, directed by Brian Lighthill. Six 30-minute instalments. Colour. Griffin, the Invisible Man, was played by Pip Donaghy. [PN/JB/DRL]

see also: The Invisible Avenger; The Invisible Man Appears; The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly.


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