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25 October 2017

The People's Monster: the Moonlit Doom of the Wolf Man

The Wolf Man is the saddest monster. The dreadful doom of Larry Talbot, a regular guy who, through no fault of his own, becomes a ravening, murderous beast when the moon is full, speaks to such primal fears that it immediately entered the culture as if it were real folklore. He is also the people's monster-- what's scary about the Wolf Man is not that he could kill you -- it's that you could become him. For who doesn't fear loss of control? Who hasn't seen sudden tragedy and loss strike without warning? Who hasn't made awful, unalterable mistakes? Larry's inexorable fate, despite his struggles against it, is as tragic as any Greek myth. The trappings supporting the tale -- the pentagram, the power of the full moon, the simple words of the explanatory doggerel -- all seemed rooted in the dark, ancient forests of old Europe, told in whispers by our ancestors.

In fact, the entire legend was the brilliant invention of screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Siodmak, born in Dresden, Germany, in 1902, was a mathematician, novelist, and screenwriter who emigrated from his homeland in the mid 1930's to escape Nazi persecution, going first to England and then to Hollywood. In the early years of the decade, before it became clear that the Third Reich would seize total control of the country, he worked with a group of progressive German filmmakers, including Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and his brother, director Robert Siodmak; all of them eventually ended up with successful careers in Hollywood. In Britain, Siodmak worked as a screenwriter; when he reached Hollywood with both an impressive resume and contacts, he was signed by Universal Studios, where he proved his worth with an inventive (but not too expensive) script for The Invisible Man Returns, which was a critical and popular success. Universal happily turned to him for more genre scripts.

Siodmak's screenplay for The Wolf Man has a straightforward structure, expertly adorned with a wealth of exotic and powerful characters whose interactions with the protagonist, the unfortunate Larry Talbot, define his story. The Wolf Man is unique among monsters in that we, the audience, see things from his point of view, not his victims. No one identifies with Frankenstein's monster, exactly; you feel sorry for him, perhaps, but you aren't likey to share his experiences. And no one is afraid of becoming Count Dracula or even the Invisible Man. But anyone could be Larry Talbot, and we know all about his terror, frustration, and despair. Every scene is about Larry; when he is not actually present the other characters are reacting to or discussing him. We follow his fall step by step; there are no flashbacks or extended point of view changes. A particularly terrific cast includes A-list actors appearing briefly in minor roles, adding depth and credibility; no matter how powerful Sir John is, he can't help his son. No matter how perceptive the doctor, or how brave the police chief, Larry is doomed.

Talbot is played by Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of Lon Chaney, the spectacular silent star known as the Man of 1,000 Faces because of his extraordinary versatility and artistic skill at transforming himself with makeup. Chaney Jr. conspicuously lacked these talents, though he did possess a unique quality of intensity. He was not a flexible actor, but could be very effective, as when he played the part of Lenny in the wrenchingly tragic Of Mice and Men.

Coming home -- Larry's last happy moments

In Larry Talbot he found the perfect role. Tall and broad shouldered, his bulk, clumsiness and inarticulateness added even more pathos to an already anguished character. Larry often struggles to express himself, which grows even more difficult as he begins to experience supernatural events that nobody else believes.

We first see Larry as he returns home (to what appears, from the names of the people and places, to be Wales -- or some other country where the trees grow straight out of the mist-shrouded ground with no roots) from Canada, where he was a successful engineer, on the occasion of his older brother's death. (This also explains his American accent in a story set in Britain; after this. however, the script decides to forget the whole thing and British and Americans accents are mixed willy-nilly with no explanation.) He is greeted by an old friend, the bluff but shrewd Col. Mondfort, now a local magistrate (Ralph Bellamy). His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), tells him that since he is now the heir, he should get to know the tenants and start running he estate. Sir John is an award winning astronomical research scientist, and is in the process of setting up a new telescope. Sir John's devotion to rationality and skepticism does not serve him well in the events soon to follow.

Larry helpfully offers to set up the telescope, and as he checks the lens he sees beautiful blond Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) serving in her father's antique shop in the town below, and is immediately smitten. He hustles down to the shop and starts chatting with her, eventually buying a cane with the silver head of a wolf on it, and she is the first one to tell him the legend of the werewolf (which you would think he knows already since he grew up there, but anyway).

"Even a man who is pure in heart,
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf
when the wolfbane blooms,
and the moon is shining bright."

She also fills him in on the other details of the legend, like the fact that the werewolf in human form will see a pentagram in the palm of his next victim's hand.

As he leaves the shop, some gypsy wagons pass by, heading for a fairground outside town to set up a fortune telling tent. Here we see the other most important characterizations in this movie, Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, often referred to as the old gypsy woman, and Bela, her tormented son, played by Bela Lugosi. Both of them were top-notch actors who never "walked through" anything, and they discuss the werewolf myth with a conviction that is part of what makes the whole movie compelling. (And it must be said that the authentic Russian and Hungarian accents help.)

The fatal walking stick

Larry convinces Gwen to go out to the fair with him, but when they meet that evening she has a girlfriend, Jenny (Fay Helm) with her. They all go to see the gypsies, and Jenny (who clearly has "dead meat" stamped on her forehead) wants to have her fortune told. As Larry and Gwen chat outside, she sits across a table from a tense and distraught Bela. When he looks into her palm he sees a pentagram, and drops her hand, saying he can tell her nothing that night. Frightened, Jenny asks, "What did you see?", but Bela tells her forcefully to go and go quickly.

Bela Lugosi as the unforunate Bela the Gypsy

We see Maleva in her tent reacting to the horses neighing and rearing in fear. Then we hear the howl of a wolf, and a woman's scream. Larry runs into the foggy marsh to see what has happened, and is attacked by an animal that he identifies as a wolf. Maleva and Gwen arrive simultaneously and find Larry lying on the ground, injured. They drive him home to the manor house in Maleva's wagon. A message arrives that Jenny has been found dead.

Montford and the local doctor, Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) investigate the scene of Jenny's death, finding that she had been killed by the bite of a large animal. But they also find the body of Bela, who has been killed by blows from Larry's silver wolf's headed walking stick. Both the Chief Constable and the doctor have questions but conclude that Larry imagined the wolf, and it must have been a wild dog that attacked Jenny, and that Bela's death was just a terrible accident caused by confusion in the fog and darkness.

In the local churchyard, Larry sees Maleva praying over Bela's coffin, and is overcome with remorse over having killed Bela. He goes to see Gwen while he's in town and meets her fiancee, Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles), the manager on the Talbot estate. At this point, Larry seems to accept that Gwen is not for him, and leaves. Looking after him, Frank says solemnly, "There's something very tragic about that man."

Sir John insists on a  rational explanation

A few days later, Frank and Gwen are attending the fair, meet Larry, and invite him to join them. He does, and they decide to try the shooting galley, but when Larry sees that the targets are pictures of wolves he shies away. He leaves his friends and passes Maleva's tent; she calls out to him. Reluctantly, he enters her tent and she explains to him that her son Bela was a werewolf, and that he could be killed only with a silver weapon -- like Larry's new walking stick. Desperately, Larry denies that the wolf he killed was Bela. (Chaney is sitting down in this scene and tiny little Maria Ouspenskaya can look him straight in the eye standing up.)

Maleva explains

Maleva gives Larry a pentagram charm on a chain, saying that it will break the evil spell. Larry rushes away. He meets Gwen, who has had a fight with Frank and offers to see her home. He gives Gwen the charm, saying it will protect her -- just in case. The gypsies all pack up and leave, as Maleva has passed the word that there is a werewolf in the camp.

Larry rushes home and tears off his jacket and shirt to check for fur; at first nothing seems to be happening but then the change begins -- and we see, right onscreen, the transformation from man to wolf. Makeup artist Jack Pierce designed the complex werewolf face, and the gradual transformation actually took hours to film, but it was well worth it (for the audience, anyway -- it was rough on Chaney!). He also somehow changes into his werewolf shirt, a darker color shirt open at the neck that he is not wearing when he starts to change. However this happens, the werewolf slips out of the house and you hear its howls and snarls.

Destroying the incriminating footprints

The next morning Larry wakes up and finds wolf footprints leading through his window up to his bed -- straight to him. Furtively he brushes the prints away, and when he goes downstairs he asks his father what he thinks of the legends. A rational scientist, Sir John says he believes that a man can truly believe he is a werewolf -- but not that he can actually transform physically. They go together to the village church, but when Larry enters everyone stares at him with distrust, and he leaves. Chaney is very good at showing the ever increasing weight of the villagers' doubt and suspicion; every eye seems hostile, yet none of his friends actually believe him. When he returns home, he finds the Dr. Lloyd, Mondfort, Frank, and his father discussing the reality of werewolves.

The doctor agrees with Sir John that a man can believe he is a werewolf. Sir John seems to feel that if they all try to reason with Larry, they will be able to talk him out of his delusion; he angrily tells the doctor that if Larry's mind is affected, he should stay home where they can care for him. Meanwhile, Frank and Mondfort set traps in the woods. That night as the werewolf prowls, he is caught in one. Maleva finds him and tells him she has come to help him; as the moon goes down he frees himself from the trap and heads home. However, Montford's hunting dogs are on his trail, and he wakes Gwen to say he's going away for good. She offers to go with him but he rushes away in horror after seeing the pentagram in her palm.

He confronts his father who still insists that it's all in his mind. To prevent Larry from giving himself up, the next night Sir John ties him to a chair in a room and bolts the door. Larry begs him to take the silver-headed cane with him when he joins the wolf hunt, and he reluctantly agrees. Sir John meets Maleva, and she chides him for leaving Larry alone.

This appears to give Sir John second thoughts, and as he hurries back towards the castle, Gwen appears, looking for Larry. The werewolf attacks her. Sir John runs to her rescue, and kills the wolf with the cane. Maleva arrives and prays over the body, and the film ends as the werewolf transforms back into Larry, dead, at peace at last.

Or so it appears. We know, of course, that the unfortunate lycanthrope will be resurrected again and again. And poor Larry will continue to fight against his fate, struggling to find someone, anyone, who will believe him before it's too late. But they never do. 

Technically, I suppose, this is a B-movie; the cast has more power than usual, more through sheer numbers than calls on their acting skills. But all of them seem to approach the movie with sincerity, knowing perhaps that this is the only way a monster movie can work. You can't camp it up. Chaney's portrayal of Larry's increasing desperation as everyone who knows him tells him his perceptions must be wrong, and that his life cannot be what he thinks it is, works well here and in all the sequels, too. Universal achieved real style, with nighttime scenes of velvety dark and silver light, and through the combination of set design, lighting, and music (including the beloved rootless forest as fondly parodied in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein). And Jack Pierce's superb makeup design still looks good today -- better, in fact, than many (or most) computerized special effects. It's hard to see how this story could be better done.

He'll be back

Vdeo clips:

The first change

1941 Trailer

The end -- or is it?