Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Even A Man Who Is Pure At Heart, And Says His Prayers By Night, May Become A Wolf When The Wolfbane Blooms And The Autumn Moon Is Bright."

The Wolf Man(1941)
Director: George Waggner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Patrick Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya

The werewolf legend has existed for as long as the vampire and the ghost, appearing in practically every culture in the world. Unlike the vampire, the werewolf has few great literary adaptions to add credence to the legend, and before 1941, few film adaptions. Universal Studios had toyed with the concept during the Laemmle regime and produced The Werewolf Of London in 1935. In many ways, this technically "first" werewolf film, if we are not counting the lost, The Werewolf(1913) and the pseudo-werewolf film, Wolf's Blood(1925), plays more like a Jekyll/Hyde adaption than what we are accustomed to today. The film was not a massive success, and this may be partly to blame on Henry Hull, who in the role of Dr. Wildred Glendon, the unfortunate botanist who is bitten by and turned into a werewolf, has little sympathy. He did, however, sport fantastic, satanic makeup as the werewolf, designed by ace makeup wizard, Jack Pierce.

Seven years later, and under new supervision, Universal were planning on reviving all the Gothic characters that had made them famous, as well as adding on their impressive roster of movie monsters. Dusting off a concept for a proposed Boris Karloff film from 1932, entitled, The Wolf Man, Universal hired screenwriter, Curt Siodmak,  to write a new screenplay for the studio's new horror star, Lon Chaney Jr. The result was something mythic, that would forever cement in viewer's minds, the legend of the werewolf. Siodmak's script was originally more subtle and Freudian, anticipating the Val Lewton approach and it was never the original intention to even have a physical transformation into a wolf happen at all. However, studio heads balked at such a decision and one of the most iconic of cinematic monsters was born in the greatest of his many screen incarnations.

The film begins with one of the most famous of all horror movie themes, and one that was to be borrowed from for two decades, as the arguably greatest cast ever assembled for a horror film. Rarely would such a prestigious cast of largely A-list actors, be assembled for such a picture and Universal was rarely to make a horror film of such quality again.
In the first scene, we are given the definition of Lycanthropy, a disease of the mind where the individual believes that he/she may be a wolf. There is also a mention of Talbot Castle, where strange occurrences with the werewolf are said to still occur. With that score by Hans J. Salter, a feeling of melancholy and doom already entangles the picture and sets up the viewer for an emotional experience(for return viewers, it's difficult not to find this opening a bit moving, considering what is to follow.)
Lawrence Talbot(Lon Chaney Jr.) has returned from America to live at his family estate in Llanwelly, a Welsh village. He is to one day claim the estate, his brother, John, having recently died in a hunting accident. Larry's father, Sir John Talbot(Claude Rains) have been rather distant, but hope to rekindle they're relationship. Larry helps install a telescope in the castle's observatory and uses it to gaze at the village. There he sees Gwen Conliffe(Evelyn Ankers) and he instantly smitten. This is a fairly innocent scene, though i'm supposing that some of today's viewers may perceive Lon Chaney's character as a creeper.
Larry visits her antique shop and hits on her, even buying a silver headed Wolf cane from her, where he gets told the oft-repeated gypsy verse, "Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright." as she explains the head and the pentagram sign on it, as the sign of the werewolf, which Larry has never heard of.
That evening, Larry has successfully gotten Gwen to go on a date with him, but finds that Gwen has invited a friend, Jenny Williams(Fay Helm) along for the ride. They go get their fortunes told by a band of gypsies who are camping in the forest. One of them is a forlorn looking character named Bela, played by none other than Bela Lugosi, in a clever cameo. Bela reads Jenny's palm and sees the sign of the pentagram and tells her to go quickly, for he is cursed by the mark of the beast. Soon, a wolf howls and it's too late for Jenny as Bela the werewolf stalks her and proceeds to kill her. Larry hears her cries and goes to her rescue and ends up in a scuffle with the beast, which bites him in the fight. Larry manages to kill it with his silver-headed cane and the curse has been passed, his fate sealed.

Maleva(Maria Ouspenskaya), the mother of Bela, finds her son dead and Larry wounded and Gwen and her help Larry home. The attack is labelled as that of a wild animal, though no wolf is found, only animal tracks and the body of the gypsy. The next day, Larry is questioned and tries to recount his story, but the facts don't add up. There's no scar on his chest, only the sign of the pentagram and he is frightened by the confusion. Bela is buried that evening and Larry goes to pay his respects and spies the elderly woman over her son's grave, spouting one of the most memorable soliloquies in genre history. "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, you're suffering is over, Bela, my son."
Larry is overcome with emotion at the scene and weeps across Bela's grave, one of the actor's great screen moments and a defining moment in the picture.
Larry, overcome with grief, is asked to go out and enjoy himself. He goes to a fair that night and all goes well, until he tries the shooting range and stops dead when he sees the image of a wolf. He misses his shot and hurries away, running into Maleva. She explains the curse of the pentagram to him, but to no avail. She gives him a charm to wear around his neck and prays that Heaven help him. Larry gives the pendant to Gwen and notices the gypsies are packing up, because there is a wolf in camp.
Larry has a trippy hallucination, involving various images such as a wolf's head and Gwen and Maleva, and hurries home, where he finds his legs getting hairier and soon he realizes that the curse is happening and that he is becoming a werewolf. Before long, Larry is stalking the night as The Wolf Man, and comes across a gravedigger, whom he promptly jumps upon and murders. The police investigate and find the same animal tracks as the previous murder, this time the tracks lead to the Talbot Estate...
The next day, Larry awakens to discover muddy footprints leading to his room and hurriedly wipes them away, afraid that what he believed could have happened, actually did. Dr. Lloyd(Warren William) believes that Larry is under extreme stress and needs relaxation and should be sent away. Sir John will here none of it, conflicted with the love for his son and his responsibility to the community. Cynical, Col. Montford(Ralph Bellamy) who acts as the Chief of police, laughs at Larry's hysteria, prompting antagonism between the two. Sir John suggests that Larry and him attend church, but Larry finds himself afraid to go in, frightened and ashamed by all the faces that speak ill of him and accuse him of the crimes.

That evening, Larry turns into the werewolf once more and is trapped in one of the bear traps that were set for the beast. Maleva arrives and speaks the same words she spoke over Bela's grave and releases the beast temporarily. Larry awakens in the forest and rushes off to see Gwen, who by now has fallen for Larry. He comes to say goodbye and announces that he must escape. She wants to run away with him, but he is certain of his curse, seeing the pentagram in her palm,  and rushes out of her home. Running home, he faces his father, who wants to put an end to this werewolf business in his mind, by tying him to a chair and letting him face the moon as it rises. Larry asks his father to take his cane with him, and Sir John obliges, in one of the film's most poignant moments.
The village have set up stands and firing lines to take down the beast when it arrives, and Gwen ends up in the shuffle, searching for Larry in the forever foggy country. She runs into Maleva, who implores her to run away, but Gwen does not listen. Sir John also meets Maleva, who can see that even he doubts his senses, for as shots are heard, Sir John decides to return to his son. However, the Wolf Man strikes and attacks Gwen, and Sir John hears her cries and comes to her aid, facing down his own son in a battle to the death. He beats him over the head with the cane and kills him, much like Larry did to Bela. Then, in one of the most unforgettable conclusions in a horror film, Maleva kneels down over his body and recites the poem one last time that she did for Bela, and the wolf becomes Larry. Sir John is devastated, and touches his son's face, in shock of what has occurred. The men decide that Larry was killed by the beast, and that he died trying to rescue Gwen, who cries in the arms of her suitor, Frank Andrews(Patrick Knowles) who was part of the hunt. The curse has ended and the audience is left with one of the great genre conclusions since Bride of Frankenstein(1935), for few have mastered such poignancy as this film.

The Wolf Man is one of the finest horror films ever made. A first class production that represents the near-apex of Gothic horror, as well as the most thorough and moving portrayal of the werewolf on film. Curt Siodmak's script set the standard for all werewolf stories to follow, elaborating the myths to such a degree that many don't realize they stem from here. Staples such as a silver-tipped weapon and the power of moonlight, as well as the lovely gypsy verses, have added immeasurably to the folklore of this famous monster. Siodmak's script is intelligent and thought-provoking, with an emphasis on tragic destiny, no doubt inspired by the writer's real-life persecution as a German-Jew, fleeing from Nazi Germany. Siodmak's empathy for the outsider form the core of the story and the theme of a man trapped in a world out of control was timely, and has prove itself to be timeless.
George Waggner was hardly a great director, but is probably at his peak here, utilizing simple and eerie sets with an emphasis on fog and shadows to create an atmosphere all it's own. The Wolf Man is the most lavish of the 40s horror films, if one does not count The Phantom of the Opera(1943), also directed by Waggner, though with far less style and atmosphere and horror to recommend it. 

What really makes the film work the most is the impressive cast assembled here. Claude Rains, always a fine actor, is superb as Sir John Talbot, the patriarch of the Talbot family and it's his relationship with his son that forms the emotional thread of this story, creating a Greek tragedy out of the whole thing. It's a credit to the actor that he was able to make Sir John so sympathetic, for here is a man, blinded by his prestige and his duty to the people, that he forgets the welfare of his son and may spell the reason for their estrangement at the beginning. The expression on his face at the conclusion is unforgettable and sums up the power of this film. We feel his loss and it's as tragic an ending as when King Kong fell off the Empire State Building, or when Karloff's Monster blew up the castle at the conclusion of Bride of Frankenstein.
Maria Ouspenskaya probably deserves a lot of credit for making this work so well, bringing an emotional edge and authority to her role of the ancient gypsy who knows all. Her line readings are just beautiful and it's doubtful that few actors could have done as much with them as she does, here. It's doubtful that the ending would have worked as well as it did, without her soliloquy, which she does perfectly.
Evelyn Ankers, the most famous of the 40s horror heroines, is perfectly lovely as the damsel in distress and is always likable in all her horror outings, this one being the most famous. Her presence was certainly missed as the series progressed.
Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patrick Knowles add respectability to the film by infusing more life into these supporting parts than would have normally required and clearly indicate the level of craftsmanship afforded this production. Especially moving is Bela Lugosi, who was originally thought to be up for the role of The Wolf man, though clearly that would have never worked with the script that was ultimately used. It's a small role, but he's excellent and sympathetic in what he has and it's a joy to find him here in an A-list horror film, considering what he was relegated to in the 40s.

Lon Chaney Jr., of course, is the lead reason for the film's success. While a limited actor, that does not mean, nor suggest, that he was a poor one. Chaney was at best portraying average, working-class men, which sadly, was not he was usually offered. He never fit the horror mould created by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, not having the grace or culture of those two fine actors. What he did have was sympathy, particularly through his eyes, a trait perhaps picked up from his immortal father, Lon Chaney Sr. Larry Talbot is a regular man thrown into extraordinary circumstances and is anything but in control of his fate. It's no surprise that the original shooting title was Destiny, which also became the secret name for many Universal horror films during the 40s. Chaney is effective as Larry Talbot and finds in him a kindred spirit, able to unleash many of his own pent-up emotions and repressed insecurities, bringing out a fully-fleshed character that ranks among the most famous in the history of the horror film.
His most effective moments are the one in the crypt, over Bela's coffin, which ranks among the best in his career and towards the end, when he seems resigned to destiny, and saddened by the card in life he has been dealt. There's real power there when he asks his Dad to take the silver-headed cane, knowing full-well that he is the beast himself. The recent remake skipped all this sensitivity and went for the typical action movie approach, proving itself a failure in the process. Chaney's plight in this film is timeless, and likely to affect audiences decades after such remakes and imitations are turned to dust.
Chaney's effective handling from go-getter to depressive and morose is chilling and maybe the most honest look at the real Chaney, from what I gather, that has ever been properly presented on the screen. I have to suspect that this was close to home for Chaney, who had a similarly estranged relationship with his own father and also suffered from personal demons, including alcoholism. Few genre performances have been as moving or thoughtful as Chaney's very personal take on this character, which he dubbed, "his baby."
Credit must also be given to master makeup man, Jack Pierce, who once again performs miracles, transforming Chaney into the fourth great Universal monster and creating another cinematic icon. It's an indelible creation for sure and no other Wolf Man has proved quite as eerie and beloved as the one created here, though it's interesting to note that outside of his legs, we never see Larry change into the Wolf Man in this film. Another bizarre note: we never even see the full moon!

The Wolf Man would prove to be the end of an era, the remainder of Universal's output in the 40s, progressively going towards the low budget. The Wolf Man would be resurrected for four more films, all with Chaney, and the actor would also portray all of Universal's iconic monsters, with varying degrees of success. Many werewolf films would be made, but none captured the simplicity or timelessness that this film did. Fewer still, continue to influence and inspire the genre as much, too.
It's easy to say this is the best werewolf film, or the finest of the 40s horror classics, but what has to be known, is that this is horror at it's peak. An epic fairy tale, with all the best that the Hollywood dream machine had to offer, creating one of the finest and most indelible horror films of all time. 

1 comment:

  1. Please can you tell me the exact moment, and in what scene, the gypsy lady says the lines"Even the pure of heart who says his prayers by night" I know she said it, but cannot find it in the film. Thanks