Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Wolf Man (1941)

Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi
Directed by George Waggner
No Rating

*Spoilers Ahead*

The movie opens with the introduction of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) and a reunion with his son Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) Already my willing suspension of disbelief is stressed. Aside from the fact that they don’t look anything alike, Rains is a head shorter than Chaney, but what Rains my lack in stature he makes up for in his commanding delivery of his dialogue making even the most inconsequential lines seem important. His veteran experience shines through as he acts circles around everyone and doesn’t show much in the way of mercy towards a newcomer like Chaney. Conversely, Chaney’s towering physique lacks the sophistication of his father’s character, sounding more akin to an everyman type rather than the wealthy son and heir. Its not explained what Chaney’s character does for a living, but I got a sense he was something of a nomad, acquiring skills as he went along, likely earning keep through odd jobs. The way he described knowing how to assemble the telescope reminded me of Steve McQueen from “The Great Escape” talking about how he used to be a chemistry student, its just something you don’t expect from someone who is very clearly an actor. The difference in Rains' British accent and Chaney’s American accent also shows through here.

The previously mentioned telescope is also an interesting bit. When Larry first looks through it he sees the street as if he were on the ground level, while in the next shot his view matches that of being on a higher floor. He catches a glimpse of Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) across the street and dashes off to hit on her, showing that he’s already a wolf (Zing!). Quite a brave feat for someone who really doesn’t have the charisma to be a romantic lead. This eventually leads to a late night date at the fortuneteller where a gypsy woman tells them they are in great danger. At this the music goes over the top and seems a bit distracting from the actual drama. Larry is bitten and Gwen’s friend is killed, leading to an unintentionally hilarious scene involving the New York accented police chief repeatedly telling the squeamish reporter to “Take a note!”

The abysmal forest is quite effective at creating mood with thick fog suspended in the air. Chaney does an excellent job at showing guilt, anxiety and torment in his facial expressions as he fears he is becoming a werewolf and could be responsible for the string of attacks, while all the other claim it’s all in his head. He begins to make some impassioned speech about how he can understand tubes and wires, which would have made for an interesting bit of character development with a science vs supernatural, explained vs the unexplained theme, but it isn’t brought to fruition and is ruined slightly when Larry asks his father to explain his pentagram shaped scar he recieved from the werewolf, to which his father replies, “Any animal could have made that mark.” Yes, any animal could have made a perfectly symmetrical star shape.

Theres a brief scene in which Larry tells Gwen that he has to leave or risk hurting anyone else and she says she wants to go with him, which I don’t buy since they haven’t know each other for very long and she already has a fiancĂ© who isn't a jerk and hasn’t been conveniently disposed by the werewolf, contrary to movie law. The climax comes into play while Talbot Sr. is out in the woods and showing a face filled with fright as he beats the werewolf to death with Larry’s silver tipped cane. Claude Rain’s acting chops sell the scene as he discovers that the Wolf Man is his son. Like “The Fly” there really isn't a connection between man and monster to the audience because we never see the transformation and can’t really make any real association. At least this film ends on a higher note than “Frankenstein”, closing with some action as well as emotional reaction.

While there is some great acting and spectacular atmosphere, the film can't seem to decide if it wants to be a straight up creature feature or a psychology horror story about duality in the vein of "Jekyll and Hyde", which really divides the film and hinders a number of quality ideas from developing to their full potential.

Final Score:
Three out of Five. Alright.

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