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Non-Review Review: The Wolf Man (1941)

Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night,

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

Although hampered by perhaps the weakest leading performance of the “great” Universal horror films, I maintain that The Wolf Man has the strongest script of any of the classic Universal monster movies. Although, like so many other horror films produced by the studio, it went through any number of re-writes and executive meddling before reaching the screen, I think Curt Siodmak’s script deserves a great deal of credit for doing several very import things. On one level, it presented one grand unifying story archetype for werewolf tales, to the point where it is almost that subgenre’s Dracula. However, it also plays as a fascinating and compelling psychological drama, with an element of humanity and complexity that shines through Jack Pierce’s phenomenal make-up work.

Lon Chaney as the wolf man. Or me, early on a Sunday morning…

It’s hard to believe that there really wasn’t one codifying story for werewolves before Curt Siodmak wrote this script. Like vampires, werewolves had been a part of European folklore for generations, but with details frequently varying from story to story. The Wolf Man manages to basically condense all the theories about the monster down into one easy-to-digest package, while adding a few tweaks of its own. For example, the monster’s weakness to silver didn’t really exist before Siodmak wrote the script.

However, what’s most interesting about Siodmak’s script is the suggestion that the wolf man might not actually exist. In the other horror movies in this collection – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man – the existence of the monster is readily accepted and taken for granted once the horrible acts truly begin. However, Siodmak’s Wolf Man runs from beginning to end in such a way that the majority of the characters could rationally explain everything that occurred without having recourse to the notion of a man physically transforming into a wolf.

If they go down to the woods today, they’re sure of a big surprise…

Perception is a key part of the film. “I only saw a wolf,” Larry protests when Bela the gypsy is found dead. He offers to show them the bite from the wolf, only to discover that it’s not there. “Must have healed up,” he suggests even though it’s physically impossible. He insists, “Yeah, but don’t try to make me believe I killed a man when I know I killed a wolf.” He demands, “Why does everyone insist that I’m confused?”

To be fair, there’s a lot here that suggests that Larry Talbot is really transforming into a wolf to prowl the misty forests surrounding his family estate. The investigators find wolf footprints that look much bigger than those of a regular animal. The gypsy lady sees Larry in wolf form and is able to render him human again. At the climax of the story, even Sir John sees the beast his son has become. However, one could argue that all these are metaphorical. The gypsy lady sees the same mental affliction that plagued her son. Sir John sees proof that his son is a murder, a monster.

Fortune tellers favour the bold…

There’s a very strong suggestion that, in medieval times, werewolf legends associated the deeds of with serial killers. Sabine Baring-Gould explores that link quite well in The Book of Werewolves. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a letter to the East London Advertiser dated 6th October 1888 explicitly linked the murders of Jack Ripper to the ghouls created by the popular imagination to rationalise and explain such wanton brutality:

So inexplicable and ghastly are the circumstances surrounding the crimes that people are affected by them in the same way as children are by the recital of a weird and terrible story of the supernatural. It is so impossible to account, on any ordinary hypothesis, for these revolting acts of blood that the mind turns as it were instinctively to some theory of occult force, and the myths of the Dark Ages rise before the imagination. Ghouls, vampires, bloodsuckers, and all the ghastly array of fables which have been accumulated throughout the course of centuries take form, and seize hold of the excited fancy. Yet the most morbid imagination can conceive nothing worse than this terrible reality; for what can be more appalling than the thought that there is a being in human shape stealthily moving about a great city, burning with the thirst for human blood, and endowed with such diabolical astuteness, as to enable him to gratify his fiendish lust with absolute impunity?

In fact, when the first death occurs, the local residents immediately suspect it’s the work of a human murderer rather than some supernatural force. Bursting into Talbot Manor, a local declares that Jenny has been murdered – not mauled by a wolf or savaged, but murdered. “What makes you say she was murdered?” He is asked. The peasant responds, “Her throat, sir.” It’s interesting that even  a superstitious community like the village, with its own history of werewolf lore, can’t be convinced that this is the work of come mythic beast.

Spare the rod…

Of course, Siodmak’s original draft of the screenplay was a lot more ambiguous about the nature of the central character’s transition. In what is referred to as “the Larry Gill script” (as the character was not Larry Talbot, but Larry Gill), historian Tom Weaver explains how the script kept things decidedly ambiguous:

In the Larry Gill script you never see him as the wolf man, except at the end.  And you see it through Gill’s eyes,  reflected in a pool of water out in the woods someplace.

The story was retooled extensively from Siodmak’s original screenplay. To be fair, some of the changes worked out for the best. Larry works much better as Sir John’s son returning home than as some random American stranger in the middle of England. Siodmak would attempt to use the same ambiguous gimmick later on in Bride of the Gorilla, but the executives vetoed it there as well.

He’s got a casual manor about him…

However, despite that, there’s still considerable evidence that Larry’s problem is at least as much psychological as it is physical. The movie opens on the library definition of lycanthropy. It is “a disease of the mind.” The word “LEGEND” is capitalised. Indeed, if one embraces the idea that Larry’s problem is psychological, then the story becomes a grander tragedy about society’s inability to really cope with mental illness, and the damage that superstitious beliefs can do.

Sir John explains lycanthropy in the most psychological terms possible. “The scientific name for it is lycanthropia,” he tells Larry. “It’s a variety of schizophrenia.” When Larry wants to know more, he clarifies. “It’s a technical expression for something very simple. The good and evil in every man’s soul. In this case, evil takes the shape of an animal.” Sir John even argues that Larry’s transformations are metaphorical rather than literal:

Now, you asked me if I believe a man can become a wolf. If you mean “Can it take on physical traits of an animal?” No, it’s fantastic. However, I do believe that most anything can happen to a man in his own mind. Time for church. You know, Larry, belief in the hereafter is a very healthy counterbalance to all the conflicting doubts man is plagued with these days. Come on.

It’s a nice touch that Sir John expresses this opinion on the way to church, suggesting that any form of “belief” like that is a “healthy counterbalance” to the complexities of the world. It is, after all, easier to believe that the murders are the work of a beast rather than sweet Larry Talbot.

I took quite a shine to it, I must concede…

As Sir John concedes on Larry’s return, “The 18 years you’ve been away should’ve qualified you to be of benefit to the estate, since in a great many ways we are a backward people, but don’t quote me.” Perhaps because this is a backward community, nobody seems especially capable of helping Larry with his mental issues. Even his father refuses to believe that it could be a serious mental illness, because of the stigma that would arise from such a situation.

The priest comments to the gypsy, “Fighting against superstition is as hard as fighting against Satan himself.” In a world where mental health professions are still concerned about the use of exorcisms in the place of desperately-needed psychological assistance, that feels quite apt. Watching The Wolf Man, part of the tragedy seems to be that Larry desperately seeks help for his problem, but it’s repeatedly dismissed by those around him as something that a little sleep might cure, or simply by soldiering on through it. It feels like the casual dismissal often encountered by those suffering from depression(or other mental health issues).

Lon wolf, eh?

There’s quite a bit in the film to suggest that the wolf man is merely an expression of Larry’s inner turmoil. In Horror Noir, writer Paul Meehan states that the film’s strongest element “is Curt Siodmak’s masterful screenplay, which is arguably the finest horror script ever produced at Universal.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Meehan suggests that the film has a lot in common with film noir, including the notion of identity and perception, both of which hint at some sense of ambiguity about what’s unfolding on-screen:

Personality transformation (or split personality) is another noir theme explored in The Wolf Man. Larry Talbot is, in effect, a homicidal maniac who is compelled to kill by the light of the full moon and seems to have partial amnesia about what he does in his werewolf state. Unlike a real wolf or other wild animal in nature, Larry’s alter ego is compelled to murder without any rationality or reason, in a manner more similar to a human serial killer. The swirling montage of fearful and libidinous images the precede Larry’s initial transformation also appears in both the 1932 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and in all cases is meant to signify the protagonist’s descent into the vortex of the Id-double, the atavistic self-within-a-self that resides in the primitive regions of the mind.

It is interesting that we only see the Wolf Man killing with his bare hands, rather than swiping with his claws or attacking with his teeth. There is, of course, a pragmatic reason for this. The Hayes Code would never have allowed such graphic brutality. Still, it’s a nice touch that suggests there’s more going on here than a man who simply turns into a wolf.

Carting superstition all over the country…

The script is populated with all manner of duality and ambiguities, and not just in the character of Larry Talbot. Most of the cast seem remarkably well-drawn, in contrast to the rather bland human characters that populate movies like The Mummy or even Dracula. Gwen in particular has a dark side to her. She doesn’t immediately confess her engagement to Larry, even when he’s clearly interested in her romantically. She still goes out on what is very clearly a date. She brings Jenny along as a third wheel, but seems relieved when fate takes Jenny away so she and Larry can spend some time together.

“In fact, I really shouldn’t be here,” she admits to Larry. He counters, “Oh, but you are here.” Even if she doesn’t know (or can’t admit) why she is there, it’s clear that there’s quite a bit going on underneath the surface. When we meet her fiancée, he seems like a genuinely pleasant fellow, and is quite polite to her. Later on, when Larry bumps into her again, he’s surprised to see her without her soon-to-be husband. “Gosh, I’m glad to see you,” he admits. “I thought you left with Frank.” She answers, “Oh, we had a quarrel and I…”

It’s a mist-ery…

We see nothing in their conduct to suggest that Frank and Gwen are a dysfunctional couple, but such difficulties don’t always manifest themselves externally. It’s clear that the community is gossiping and whispering, despite the fact that Larry and Gwen think they are spending time together in private. The women in Gwen’s father’s shop make none-too-subtle accusations, insinuating that Gwen has her own darker side, to mirror Larry’s Wolf Man. Jenny’s mother accuses, “I knew that innocent face was just…”

Even Frank himself, a third wheel character with a minimum amount of screen time and development, is still presented as a character with contradictions and his own issues. Introducing himself to Larry at the carnival, he assures Gwen, “I just wanted to show you that I’m not jealous.” While his pleasant demeanour never disappears, it’s quite clear that he’s lying through his teeth. He immediately challenges Larry to competition in front of Gwen, as if needed to prove his superiority over the heir to Talbot Manor. As the pair play a shooting game, he insists to Larry, “We’ll have fun together.”

You can’t go home again…

There’s a lot of subtext in there, from the phallic rifles to the fact that Larry’s brother died in a “hunting accident”, likely with residents of the village who seem to resent the Talbot family for their class. Indeed, speaking to Gwen, Frank seems to dislike the idea of her mingling with a Talbot more than the idea of her mingling with another man. We never find out the details of the “hunting accident” that claimed the life of Larry’s older brother, but it suggests the possibility of confusion, ambiguity and friendly fire – likely shot by a man he considered to be a friend.

In Universal Horrors, Mike Brunas suggested that Larry’s Wolf Man persona could be read as a response to the reception he receives on coming home after so many years:

And then there’s Larry’s dual personality to consider. Claiming his legacy under sombre circumstances, Talbot bears the pain of estrangement. Neglected by his aristocratic family as a child (the old “an heir and a spare” syndrome), Larry’s uneasy reconciliation with his father soon splinters. (“Does the prestige of your family mean more to you than your son’s life?” family physician Dr. Lloyd [Warren William] pointedly asks Sir John.) Larry is a true outcast, there’s nary one amongst the suspicious townfolk who doesn’t brand him a murderer; their cold stares even freeze him out of a church service. Larry’s boyhood friend Montford eyes him icily and cruelly ridicules him after Talbot, obviously in a frazzled state, suggests that a werewolf is responsible for the killings. The festering resentment of the outwardly kindly Larry comes out in his wolf-self, a marauding ‘id’ terrorising the populace. Siodmak spells this out in Sir John’s thumbnail definition of lycanthropy: “It’s the technical term for something very simple: The good and evil in every man’s soul.”

Indeed, Sir John rather neatly explains Larry’s deep-rooted personal issues to the audience at the start of the film. “You know, Larry, there has developed a tradition about the Talbot sons. The elder, next in line of succession, is considered in everything. The younger frequently resents his position and leaves home, just as you did.”

Father knows best.

It’s very clearly immediately that Sir John is incapable of giving the love and approval that Larry so desperately wants. “The tradition also insists the Talbots be the stiff-necked, undemonstrative type,” he concedes. “Frequently, this has been taken to very unhappy extremes.” And yet, despite realising this, Sir John falls back into the pattern throughout the film, unable to give Larry even all of his attention.

At the climax of the film, Sir John as tied up Larry, who is clearly having a mental breakdown as he’s convinced that he will turn into a murderer. This is arguably the moment where Larry is in most desperate need of a father who has been emotionally withdrawn at the best of times. At that moment, unable to swallow his pride, Sir John decides to abandon his son in service of his duty to the local residents, “I’ve got to go. These people have a problem. You must make your own fight, but we’ll settle this thing tonight.”

A textbook definition of lycanthropy…

As played by Claude Rains, Sir John manages to remain curiously sympathetic, despite his arrogance, his pride and his disconnect from Larry. Part of this is, undoubtedly, down to the fact that Claude Rains is a far stronger actor than Lon Chaney. However, the script refuses to condemn him, even as he abandons his son to his fate. There’s a slight hint of redemption as his arrogance ultimately waivers. He decides, albeit too late, that he should be with his son.

The gypsy woman even explicitly states that this is turning point for Sir John, perhaps the first time he has ever allowed his paternal instincts to overwrite whatever it is that society demands or expects from him. “Were you hurrying back to the castle?” she asks him. “Did you have a moment’s doubt? Were you hurrying to make sure he’s all right?” Sir John’s pride would never allow him to admit it, but it seems quite clear.

Digging his own grave…

The last-minute revelation that he does genuinely love his son more than his family name allows the final sequence to become all the more tragic, as he bludgeons his own son to death – something that only happened because he refused to take his son’s pleas seriously. Rains captures Sir John’s humanity perfectly. Chaney is likeable enough as Larry, but he lacks the same range or complexity as Rains. On the other hand, this simple performance makes it easier for the audience to empathise with Larry as a man caught in events outside his own control.

Larry is pretty clearly presented as repressed throughout the film, perhaps to an unhealthy extent. He identifies Gwen by using the telescope to spy into her room. Rather than romantic, the first scene between the pair of them is kinda creepy. He asks for a specific set of earrings. She claims they don’t have any in stock. He counters, “Oh, yes, you have. Don’t you remember? On your dressing table up in your room.” He doesn’t confess that he has been stalking her through a telescope, though, until much later.

A Lon, Lon way to go…

There’s a sense of longing and aspiration in Larry, a sense that he wants far more than he ever received. He is, after all, only heir to the estate because his brother died. He wants a woman who is engaged to be married. It’s hard not to pity him as he concedes, “A telescope has a mighty sharp eye. It brings the stars so close you feel you can touch them.” It seems that there are a lot of things Larry feels he can touch, but is ultimately unable to. His father’s love remains out of reach. The girl of his dreams is marrying another guy. “It does the same to people in their rooms, if you point it in the right direction.”

Even if you accept that Larry isn’t literally transforming into a wolf every night, there’s a sense that’s he’s a victim of the community around him, the village that seems to subtly resent his very presence. Discussing a hypothetical case, he asks the doctor, “You mean by that that he could be influenced by the people about him?” Doctor Lloyd concedes, “I believe that a man lost in the mazes of his mind may imagine that he’s anything. Science has many examples of the mind’s power over the body. Case of the stigmata appearing in the skin of zealots. Self-hypnotism.”

That gypsy has him in the palm of her hand…

Even though he can’t quite bring himself to admit it, Sir John seems to acknowledge that the village doesn’t like the Talbot family. When Doctor Lloyd suggests Larry needs attention, Sir John immediately jumps to his son’s defence, his pride refusing to concede there’s anything wrong. In his response, he seems to indirectly blame the villagers for Larry’s condition. “Listen to me. Five generations of Talbots haven’t been affected by this village. That boy stays here!”

There’s another element of class discord when Larry worried about the villagers coming up to the mansion to take him. Sir John’s language is quite adversarial. He advises his son, “Listen to me. You’re Laurence Talbot. This is Talbot Castle. You believe those men can come in here and take you out?”He seems to imagine there’s a none-too-subtle form of class warfare at play here, and that Talbot Castle could find itself under siege from the village at any given moment.

Hairy business, that…

The Wolf Man also plays with the idea of fate, the notion that Larry is completely out of control of his dark side, and that he is driven by forces he doesn’t understand. Siodmak’s script gave us the iconic werewolf poem above, but it also gave us the gypsy’s repeated reflection on the notion of predestination:

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.

Larry is, arguably more than any other figure in the Universal pantheon, a tragic figure. Unlike the Phantom or the Invisible Man, he didn’t do anything to provoke his situation. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula, Larry can be divorced from the part of himself that commits murders and violence. Larry is a pretty decent guy, but the Wolf Man is a monster – and Larry suffers a result of the Wolf Man’s compulsions. It feels like tragedy.

‘Twas the beast (almost) killed Beauty…

Larry knows that he will kill. In an especially cruel twist of fate, he’s even explicitly told who he will kill. The gypsy tells him, “Every werewolf is marked with it and sees it in the palm of his next victim’s hand.” It’s a terrible thing to live with, to know that he will kill a person, without any motivation or reason for his brutality. He will commit these acts of violence not because he chooses to, or because he made a choice that made it inevitable that he would commit these acts of violence. He simply commits these acts because… well, because he will.

It’s hard not to pity Larry in that situation. Even the fact the selects the instrument of his own eventual murder gives the story a sense of grand tragedy, one of the aspects of Siodmak’s script that I really like. I think that the script for The Wolf Man is certainly the strongest of the era, and I think it stands out as much stronger than most of the contemporary work within the horror genre.

Stars on his chest…

I also quite like the meta-fictional element to all this. After all, the film opens on a book. Lon Chaney stars a man struggling with to live up to his father’s legacy after year in exile – Chaney’s father was one of the first monster movie, actors and forbade Chaney from following in his footsteps. It credits “Bela Lugosi as Bela”, consciously blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. There’s something quite appropriate about the fact that Bela Lugosi, the original Universal horror monster, created the Wolf Man by biting him, giving birth to the next generation of horror movie monster – signifying a passing of the torch and an evolution.

While the script is strong, The Wolf Manisn’t the strongest film in the pantheon. James Whale’s efforts were all works of art, with everything except the scripts in perfect harmony. The ensemble here is grand, but the stand-out is Claude Rains rather than Lon Chaney. Similarly, directors Tod Browning and Karl Freund were able to put their own distinctive directorial stamps on their films, but director George Waggner simply isn’t in the same league.

My, what an awesome moustache you have!

To be fair to Waggner, the movie has a number of lovely touches. I like the use of the trees and the fog to conceal the brutality, also to create a sense of ambiguity – we think we see a wolf monster attack, but the method of concealing the attack creates uncertainty about the nature of the attacker. It could, after all, be a man rather than a beast – Larry and Sir John could both be as confused as the audience. It’s a nice touch, and the production design looks lovely.

However, the rest of the movie lacks a spark. The conversational scenes are generally missing any sort of intensity and there’s relatively little suspense throughout the film. It’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting, and Lon Chaney is solid, but short of the high bar set by Karloff or Lugosi (or even Rains, as seen in this film). That said, Frank Skinner’s score is wonderful. It’s clear listening to it that it was a massive influence on Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Batman. One can hear the familiar and iconic Batman sound in the background at several points.

“Bah, I saw it coming!”

The Wolf Man is still a film I’m very fond of, even if I can acknowledge the execution is somewhat flawed. It managed to effectively define the werewolf myth for a generation, so it’s very hard not to admire it. I still think the script is the finest of any of the monster movies, even if it doesn’t have the same consistent production as some of the other Universal films.

You might be interested in our other Universal Monster reviews:

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