Friday, 2 March 2018

The Wolf Man (1941)

Taking a slightly more original approach than what could be considered typical of the time, Universal had this story wrote afresh rather than adapting a piece of existing literature. Of course the werewolf myth itself was not their concoction and neither was this the first time they had wrestled with the legend - 1935's preceding Werewolf of London is a great film and quite different from the Larry Talbot series, of which The Wolf Man is the first (though subsequent offerings would always join him up with other monsters). Returning from America to Welsh soil to ultimately take up a hereditary role as squire (following his brother’s unexpected death) Larry Talbot - a mechanically gifted man but hardly qualifying as intellectual - becomes almost immediately besotted with local girl Gwen who helps run a small shop. Persuading the already engaged woman to go out for the evening they (along with a 'gooseberry') wander into the carnival of a passing gypsy camp where Gwen’s friend is gorged to death by what may be a wolf, though is in fact one of the gypsies, Bela, who has transformed under full moon into a werewolf. Talbot himself is also attacked though manages to kill it with the silver-tipped cane he bought from Gwen’s shop, however, some confusion ensues when the police find the dead gypsy Bela instead of the wolf carcass Talbot claims should be there. Offering the benefit of doubt some of those around him reason that it was dark and foggy and Talbot couldn’t actually see what or who he was killing, but he’s already attracted the hostile attentions of some of the townsfolk who’ve had their moral strings yanked upon hearing that Talbot was out with an engaged woman. Additionally her friend ending up brutally slaughtered is something that wouldn‘t have happened if it weren‘t for him. Talbot’s own version of things loses weight as he goes to show the authorities a bite received in the attack, but finds that it has inexplicably healed prematurely. His problems seem to be getting no rosier when one of the gypsies warns him that he’s due to transform into a wolf himself as soon as the full moon reappears.
1941's The Wolf Man moves along at a brisk pace using a few conventional cinematic tricks to characterise Talbot quickly, helped by a notably able cast - Bela Lugosi is, er, Bela the gypsy and quite fantastic in what is essentially a bit part.  Bela’s presence is the pivot that changes Talbot’s fate forever and the curse the latter acquires almost seems to be nature’s condemnation of his actions as he endeavours to woo Gwen, a girl already in line to marry the strapping gamekeeper.  Up until the point he is bitten everything seems quite optimistic for the carefree foreigner.  Lon Chaney Jr. exhibits better thespian skills here than he later would in Son of Dracula and Ghost of Frankenstein - the doomed Larry Talbot suiting his naturally melancholic appearance while taking advantage of his persistently sorrowful expressions in effort to induce sympathy.  I’m sure Universal were happy to employ him here because the name itself was a commodity that could bring in audiences thanks to his very famous father - the fact that his father’s name was effectively forced on Chaney Junior by the studios (his first name was Creighton and this is originally how he was credited in films) smacks of marketing amorality and couldn‘t have done the man's morale much good.  Of course the ever reliable Claude Rains as Talbot senior is great in a calm and collected performance - John Talbot and some of his contemporaries are responsible for a number of intriguing discussions regarding the mechanics of the human mind as they pass opinion on how it might be possible for a man to realistically believe himself to be a werewolf, whilst naturally denying that a corresponding physical transformation could also be possible.  In fact in this light it could be a great ambiguous study of either abnormal human psychology or supernatural metamorphosis depending on how you wanted to look at it, if it weren’t for the fact that Chaney transforms into a wolf on screen...  Supporting this possibility is the reported fact that the first draft of the script contained no such transformation and could have resulted in a movie similar in approach to some of those Val Lewton later produced for RKO - this ambiguity would have been preferable in my opinion.  The wolf man himself is eventually displayed without a shadow of either physical or conceptual obscurity and, while this is probably one of the film’s very few faults, it is understandable from the perspective of wanting to push cinematic boundaries for the sake of popularity.

The actual effigy of the wolf man (in this incarnation) has never been something I’ve admired personally, looking odd whilst simultaneously out of synch with the kind of creature that attacked and infected him in the first place (i.e. he walks on two legs while Bela’s wolf was on all fours).  Having said that, it’s quite an accomplishment from a special effects angle (courtesy of Jack Pearce), taking several hours to both apply and remove.  The most adept aspect of the film must surely be Curt Siodmark’s script itself, featuring entrancing dialogue for the most part and plenty of good ideas that have become highly influential for this particular sub-genre.  The tragic status of the infected man formulated here has since become a staple of the werewolf movie for example, and Paul Naschy’s later creation, Waldemar Daninsky (appearing in over ten films from the sixties onwards), is clearly inspired by Larry Talbot.  The sign of the pentagram being visible on the wolf man’s victims is also a smart metaphor for the symbol that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany (i.e. those marked with the five pointed star will die) - Siodmark himself was a Jew who departed Germany as the new political regime was taking force.

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