Fact, my local cinema (well, not really local, but the only one worth going to), are taking full advantage of the build-up to Halloween to show some spooky classics from film’s past. Well, it’d be rude not to.
Now, some of these I’ve seen about a thousand times (The Shining, for instance). Then you have the ones that tend to elicit this conversation:
“Have you ever seen the Bela Lugosi Dracula?”
“Yes, of cour… wait – now you come to mention it, no. That’s weird. Have you?”
The Wolf Man (1941) is another Universal monster that is unbelievably iconic and well-known, but probably doesn’t have many viewers these days. I don’t know what state The Futurist was in in 1941, but it could be I’m now one of the first (and only, considering there were about four other people in attendance last Sunday) people in Liverpool to ever see this movie, which would be strange considering how it’s probably to werewolf yarns what The Godfather is to gangster flicks. This makes me feel a little better about writing from a first viewing about something I really feel I should have watched from start to end years ago.
The first thing worth mentioning about The Wolf Man is that Lon Chaney Jr. is no Lon Chaney Sr. He just isn’t as good. He doesn’t have the charisma, the range or the talent. This will be clear to anyone familiar with Chaney Sr.’s work less than half an hour in.
The reason it’s the first thing worth mentioning is that this movie is very much a father/son story. In the set up, Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) returns to the ancestral castle and estate of his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry’s credentials as the prodigal son are clear: he was the younger brother, and thus the one of whom little was awarded and less expected. Conversely, though, this has stood Larry in good stead – having left home to make his own mark, he is his own man, and a man of the world. He’s reluctant, but confident enough that he can take on his late brother’s mantle as heir to Sir John’s estate.
These strange parallels with real life is perhaps one of the reasons why Chaney Jr. is far and away the best thing about this film, but to purely judge him on performance unveils him further as the perfect piece of casting. Not possessing the shocking good looks of his co-star and on-screen rival, Patric Knowles, Chaney’s unconventionality is the first piece of a picture he paints of a man physically imposing but gentle, confident yet anxious, friendly and kind but irredeemably tragic.
It’s tempting to read this not as a simple man becomes monster story, but as a showpiece of how going back can be a mistake. Larry is oppressed by his childhood home, assailed and literally transformed by it. One feels as if it’s the setting, not the action, that causes Larry’s regression into a mindless atavistic beast.
And it’s his father, of course, who finally brings an end to him. Rains is a fine counterpart to Chaney’s Larry, as he manages to be effortlessly imperious in spite of his smaller stature. Which is not to say that Sir John is unlikeable – indeed, he is a heroic figure torn between rationalism and understanding, and he is frequently admirable. A less subtle film might have made Larry and Sir John openly at odds instead of fighting together against an adversarial undercurrent, though one feels that a tad more tension might have been called for.
In another element of double-edged paternalism, it is Bela Lugosi who begins the film as the werewolf before passing the curse to Chaney. Though we have a tendency to lump these two and the likes of Boris Karloff together these days, it’s worth remembering that Dracula (1931) was a whole decade prior to The Wolf Man and Lugosi, 24 years Chaney’s senior, belonged to a slightly earlier era. It’s hard not to see this casting as something of a passing of the torch from an actor who by this point was suffering greatly from sciatica and addicted to morphine, to one who was embarking on his first starring role in a horror flick.
The movie’s downfall can be found in its aesthetics. Iconic though the famous make-up may be, it’s dated the film horribly, a poor pay-off after a long build-up. It is done no favours by the lighting and camerawork: though the movie is atmospheric, director George Waggner lacked the artistic sophistication of his predecessors in the monster movie genre and bluntly films the creature straight on rather than employing the shadows. There’s little thought given to editing, either – Larry removes his shirt during his first transformation, but is wearing it again once he is the Wolf Man. This is just amateurish, notwithstanding an entertaining mental image of the snarling, howling monster trying to get to grips with the buttons and straightening his collar in the mirror before wandering out into the night.
The whole werewolf mechanism doesn’t really make any sense, either: if the pentagram charm given to him by the gypsy woman (a fantastic Maria Ouspenskaya) could have stopped him from becoming a werewolf, then why didn’t she give it to her own son (Bela Lugosi) to prevent his transformations? Bela, incidentally, transforms into an actual wolf, whereas Larry becomes a wolf/human hybrid. And as for what it is that actually causes him to make the change, the implication is that it’s the blooming of wolf’s bane, a plant.
But these are petty plot observations, and miss the point that it’s actually the psychology of the film that deserved to make it endure. The unexpected repression of Larry’s environment mentioned above would be rich soil for a more Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalyst than myself, especially since he actually meets his love interest after spying on her getting dressed through a high-powered telescope, Rear Window-style. Their dialogue later on this is peculiarly charged:
“I’ll make sure I close the curtains next time.”
“Oh, don’t stop on my account, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
Not wanting to sound like a bargain-basement Zizek, I wouldn’t wish to delve too far into the sexuality of The Wolf Man, but I do always enjoy this Hays Code weirdness. Your reference point is the train entering the tunnel after Cary Grant has kissed Eva Marie Sant in in North By Northwest, but this would have been exceptional even by Hitchcockian standards.
The Wolf Man is an interesting watch all these years later, looking as it does at the fear of return, the nature of fate, the borders of science and superstition – even the rationalist characters profess a belief in lycanthropy as a purely psychological phenomenon, a byproduct of the duality of the bicameral mind. (Aside – there’s a part in Andrew Solomon’s excellent The Noonday Demon that posits that the imbalances in brain chemistry that cause depression are an unfortunate but important evolutionary side effect, and the notion is backed by Jacky Bowring’s more recent but no less admirable study A Field Guide to Melancholy. Though this isn’t overtly a movie about depression, Larry’s increasing withdrawal from social niceties as a result of his condition as his friends and family try to help him with an ailment they can’t comprehend means the pattern of major depressive effect is clear and present.) Apparently, the original screenplay left it ambiguous over whether Larry actually turns into a wolf creature or whether he’s simply a disturbed murderer imagining a supernatural element, which one suspects would have made a far better film again. This wasn’t an original notion, of course, and I wonder if writer Curt Siodmak consciously referenced Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 opus The Book of Were-Wolves:
In the following pages I design to investigate the notices of were-wolves to be found in the ancient writers of classic antiquity, those contained in the Northern Sagas, and, lastly, the numerous details afforded by the mediæval authors. In connection with this I shall give a sketch of modern folklore relating to Lycanthropy.
It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.
I leave you with that final line as the key to The Wolf Man and to Chaney Jr’s difficult parallels with it, a veil of mythology that typecast him and defined his career.