In 1931 British director James Whale made a worldwide star out of Boris Karloff with Frankenstein, and he turned Kingmaker once more for Claude Rains with another classic Universal monster movie with this adaptation of H.G Wells’ 1897 novella.
In his first role in American film Rains’ face is fully visible only in a revelation scene right at the end, but he still gives one of the iconic vocal performances in cinema history. With his rich and expressive voice, troubled (read bloody mad) scientist Jack Griffin is menacing, threatening and deranged. It’s a commanding effect achieved entirely through the power of vocals and limb gestures. Whale also allows him to be playful in a sinister, black-comedy sort of way; having him sing nursery rhymes or cackle with glee as he knocks a villager’s hat off his head in and around beating a policeman to death or setting up a train crash which will kill hundreds. It’s little wonder that Rains would become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after talents of his day, despite being heard and (almost) not seen.
First seen taking refuge from a huge snowstorm in the British countryside, the Invisible Man is seen wrapped in bandages to hide (or rather to show) his face and a long coat to give him a discernible figure. When Griffin strips his clothes and bandages away the special effects by John P. Fulton are remarkable for the time and have even held up well compared to more recent efforts.
Griffin is trying to find an antidote to his invisibility so he can return to his sweetheart Flora (Stuart), the daughter of one of his scientific research partners, but the pesky villagers won’t leave him alone. Driven man by the drugs than turned him invisible Griffin soon coerces cowardly colleague Dr. Kemp (Harrigan) into being his accomplice as he seeks fame and notoriety; going on a spree of murders and robberies which leave him tracked by mobs and lead into traps set by the police.
Elsewhere Whale fills the cast with a range of memorable side characters; including an hysterical shrieking landlady and her henpecked husband (O’Connor & Harvey), while E.E. Clive plays one of the most glorious policemen ever captured on film (“ee’s invisible, that’s what’s wrong with ‘im!”)
It’s not all positive: Flora exists only to throw herself weeping across the nearest horizontal surface at every opportunity; like a lot of classic Universal Monster movies the ending comes abruptly and the script by R.C. Sheriff allows some awkward exposition; but on the whole this was, and still is, terrific stuff.