13 October 2015

The Wolf Man

Every October is monster movie month in my household. First up—The Wolf Man (1941).

In the pantheon of classic monster movies, one of the best is The Wolf Man (not to be confused with the 2010 misfire with Benicio Del Toro). Produced and directed by George Waggner for Universal, the original was filmed in glorious black and white with a screenplay by Curt Siodmak and a star-studded cast of Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man.

The film opens with a definition of “Lycanthropy” (Werewolfism): “A disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf-men. According to an old LEGEND which persists in certain localities, the victims actually assume the physical characteristics of the animal. There is a small village near TALBOT CASTLE which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature.” 

Cut to the arrival of Larry Talbot who, upon news of his brother's death, has returned home to Wales after living in California for 18 years to help his astronomer father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), run the family estate. There probably isn’t a more unlikely pairing of father and son as Rains and Chaney, the latter of whom is about twice the size of his co-star, but I’ll take Rains’ dulcet tones and solid acting any day.

Larry’s first act of filial duty is to help set up his father’s new telescope, which he promptly uses to spy on a comely young woman, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), in her apartment above the antique shop that she runs with her father. Larry later calls on Gwen and tells her that he's interested in a pair of earrings that she has in her bedroom. At this point Gwen should kick him out but she continues talking with him. When Larry asks her out, she says no but he tells her he'll be back at eight.

Before he leaves, Larry purchases a walking cane with a silver handle shaped like a wolf with a pentagon, unaware of its symbolism. Gwen explains to him what a werewolf is, reciting a line from a poem that will be repeated in the film:

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf's bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

She goes on to tell him about the significance of the pentagram, about how "every werewolf is marked with that [pentagram] and sees it in the palm of his next victim's hand." Larry is skeptical but nevertheless asks his father about it when he gets home who repeats the same line of poetry. One question, if the lore is connected to the village where he grew up, wouldn’t Larry have learnt about werewolves as a boy? 

Later that evening, Gwen meets Larry with plans to visit the Gypsy camp to get their fortunes told. She brings along her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) as a chaperone. As they wander through the fog-covered woods, Jenny points out some wolf's bane and repeats the now familiar line, an omen of what’s to come.

At the camp, Jenny sits with one of the gypsies, Bela (Bela Lugosi), whose theatrics turn to concern when he sees a pentagram on her palm and commands her to go. Turns out Bela is a werewolf. But his attempts to protect her fails. He turns into a wolf and kills Jenny. Hearing her cries, Larry arrives and attacks the wolf, killing it with his cane but not before being bitten.

The police arrive and find a dead Bela with his head bashed in and Larry’s walking stick on the ground. At Talbot Castle, they question Larry who insists that he killed a wolf. When he tries to show them his bite mark, he finds that it has disappeared. The chief constable, Captain Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy), is suspicious while Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) believes Larry’s suffering from mental anguish. 

Larry, feeling remorse, goes to the church where Bela's coffin lies. When the old gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya ), enters he hears her recite some lines over the coffin: “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela, my son. Now you will find peace.”

Maria Ouspenskaya knocks it out of the park as Maleva. Not only does she look the part, her delivery and body language are spot on. There is a weariness about her that conveys someone who has seen too much in the world as well as an air of wisdom.

The news of Bela’s death spreads through the village and the locals begin to whisper about Larry. Gwen’s intended, the Talbot gamekeeper Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles), warms her that "nothing but harm will come to you through him."  

Later at the Gypsy carnival, Larry runs into Maleva who tells him that Bela was a werewolf and that werewolves can only be killed with a silver bullet, silver knife, or silver stick. She then delivers the other classic werewolf line from the film:

Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.”

Maleva gives Larry a charm to wear for protection and tells him to keep it over his heart. Larry, not being the brightest or maybe in love, gives Gwen the charm instead after telling her about the conversation with the Maleva including the part about how he's now a werewolf.

The movie spends a lot of time explaining werewolves to Larry because it had to introduce the subject to moviegoers. Prior to this movie, the only werewolf movie was another Universal production, Werewolf of London (1935), which had received little attention. And unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, there wasn't a werewolf novel that audiences would have read. So screenwriter Curt Siodmak used some anecdotes from folklore but made up the other aspects of the werewolf legend, like the poem that’s repeatedly quoted. The result was that a lot of his inventions became part of the werewolf mythology that one finds in subsequent werewolf tales.

That evening, Larry transforms into the Wolf Man. The camera focuses first on his legs that sprout long hair and his feet that turn into paws (it should be noted that he remains fully clothed). You see him walking on tiptoe across his room and then the scene cuts to him in the foggy woods, again focused on his legs. Finally, he creeps around a tree and the camera lights on his fur-covered face.

The appearance of the Wolf Man doesn’t happen until halfway through the movie. This was smart on the filmmakers' part, helping to build the audience’s anticipation. Unlike Bela who appeared as an actual wolf (in real life it was Chaney’s German Shepherd), Larry’s Wolf Man is in human form albeit with a snout-like nose and excessive facial hair.

His first act is to kill a gravedigger. The next morning Larry wakes to find a pentagram-shaped bite on his chest and wolf prints leading to his room. He tells the men who have come to the house that they're looking for a werewolf. Dr. Lloyd, concerned about Larry's mental state, tells Sir John to send him away but is rebuffed; Larry's father thinks the best thing for his son is to stay put.

With the villagers in an uproar and fingers pointed at Larry, it is a dangerous time for him. Yet he can’t stop his transformation. That evening, he turns into the Wolf Man and goes out into the woods only to get his foot caught in one of the traps the men have planted. Maleva appears and recites the same words she said over Bela's coffin, and Larry turns back into a man. Distraught and horrified by what he's done, he goes to see Gwen and tells her that he’s leaving. She offers to go with him but when he sees a pentagram in her palm he rushes home and confesses his crimes to his father. Sir John doesn't believe him but tries to placate his son's fears by tying him to a chair before joining the other villagers in hunting down the wolf. At his insistence, he takes Larry's wolf-head cane with him.

Larry transforms again and heads back to the woods where he attacks Gwen (a sign of a classic monster movie—no one can keep out the woods). Sir John arrives on the scene and kills the creature with the cane only to discover after Maleva recites the words from before and the Wolf Man turns back into Larry that he's killed his son. When the others arrive, Montford surmises that Larry must have been killed trying to save Gwen but some people know the truth.

The Wolf Man proved to be highly popular with audiences and Chaney would go on to play the Wolf Man in five more films including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which reunited many of the actors from the original film, and my personal favourite, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In the vein of more is better, the Wolf Man was often paired with Frankenstein or Dracula in these later movies.

While Chaney would go on to play other roles, The Wolf Man typecast him and he often ended up playing other monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, to name a few). Yet the power of Chaney’s performance here shouldn’t be overlooked. In The Wolf Man he created a complex character, showing Larry’s torment and making the audience sympathetic to his plight, not an easy task for a monster.

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