James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933)

by Mark Wallace

When I first encountered it, aged about 7 or 8, H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man inspired in me feelings which I would now, thanks to my later readings of Dr Freud, understand to belong to that realm of sensation called The Uncanny. It appeared in a children’s version, illustrated and much abridged, in my local newsagent, an establishment not given to stocking works of literature. I vowed to purchase and read this intriguing work, and soon did, but I don’t remember the actual reading of it so much as just seeing it before me in the shop, and being deeply discomfitted and fascinated by that illustration of a man-shaped suit of clothes and the glasses floating above them where the eyes should be, but there were no eyes, nor a face. I don’t even remember what particular reflections this notion of the invisible man provoked in me, just that I found it greatly fascinating.

The Invisible Man arrives in Iping.

The Invisible Man is a product of the Victorian era, first published in 1897. The 1933 Universal Studios adaptation is very much a product of that studio and of director James Whale, sharing quite a few features with, especially, Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Both foreground the notion of science being a danger to sanity and the human spirit. “He meddled in things men should leave alone”, says Kemp early in the film and Griffin (The Invisible Man) himself repeats the phrase much later on. Like Victor Frankenstein, too, Griffin is given a love interest (not in Wells), and again he seems to have been faced with a binary choice – marriage to Flora and domesticity, or devotion to the expansion of human knowledge. And like Victor F., he made what is coded in the film as the wrong choice.

The love interest aside, the film is a lot less interested in gaining sympathy for Griffin than Wells. Wells gave him a substantial back-story that’s omitted. The film’s Griffin is motivated by a megalomania and lust for power so excessive as to be parodic:

Don’t you see what it means? Power. Power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet… Power! I said. Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the holy of holies, etc.

Griffin is the evil and dangerous Other, and it is in the community response to his incursion that the film locates morality and fellow-feeling.

"Power! I said."

The film also locates considerable humour in the community response to Griffin, and in Griffin’s own Puckish pransterism. For, only minutes after expounding on his lust for power, Griffin is skipping down a country lane, appearing as a disembodied pair of trousers, singing “Here we go gathering nuts in May” for the purpose of alarming a middle-aged woman out walking. Such incongruities are characteristic of Whale’s movies and much in evidence in The Invisible Man.

The coming of the disembodied trousers

In the documentary on my DVD of the film, one of the contributors puts the popularity of The Invisible Man and its several sequels down to the fact that “it’s about nudity”. Because, of course, his clothes aren’t invisible, so to stay unseen he must remain naked. There may be something in this, though voyeurism must be at least an equally large component, if one wants to ponder the psychosexuality of invisibility. Of course, neither Wells nor Whale does ponder this. But in Whale, especially, Griffin’s motives are weak and, in fact, nonsensical. If one’s desire is world power and glory, invisibility is hardly the best course. Griffin’s plan is as follows:

I shall offer my secret to the world with all its terrible power. The nations of the world will bid for it, thousands, millions. The nation that wins my secret can sweep the world with invisible armies.

I’m not so sure of the efficacy of an invisible army. Rather than sweep the world, wouldn’t they be constantly falling over each other? And, of course, to remain invisible they’d have to be naked and unarmed, hardly an ideal state for an army. Admittedly, Griffin is clearly mad with his power-lust at this point, so maybe the stupidity of his idea is the point, but by making this somewhat absurd lust for worldly power central, the film is perhaps avoiding dealing with issues of nudity and voyeurism, though there are a couple of sly references to Griffin’s naked state. Could it be time for a modern update on this classic tale, one in which the perviness of the urge for invisibility is laid bare? Only time will tell.

Side-note: This shot comes in right after the studio logo.

It says:

Universal Picture.

NRA member US.

We do our part.

First time I’ve noticed this.