Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Wolf Man (Waggner 1941)

Why have I never seen The Wolf Man before now? I am not sure that I really have an answer to that question, or rather, an answer that is satisfactory. Mainly, I have just never felt a drive to see the film, unlike other classic Universal monster films. However, having picked up the Legacy Edition release for less than ten dollars and the release of the remake in a week’s time, my list of excuses has run out. As such, I have finally seen The Wolf Man and after all this time I can say it is an ambitious and complex film that never manages to reach the heights of its more famous siblings, Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931).

The Wolf Man tells the tale of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who returns to his family home in Wales after his brother’s death, to become the new heir to his father’s (Claude Rains) estate. Smitten with a local woman named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), Talbot joins her and her friend Jenny in going to see a nearby gypsy to have their fortune’s read. When Jenny is attacked by an animal, Talbot’s rush to her defence ends with two dead bodies and Talbot injured. As more and more animal attacks take place, Talbot finds himself under increasing scrutiny from the community and increasingly questioning his own state of mind as he is confronted with evidence that he may be becoming a werewolf.

At its best, The Wolf Man is a clever examination of both patriarchy and the expectations which a society and culture place upon an individual, particularly the ideas of what it means to be masculine during the journey from childhood to adulthood. While Talbot is a fully grown man, who has lived on his own for some time, he is a strikingly childlike figure in a somewhat adolescent situation. Unlike Baron Von Frankenstein’s (Basil Rathbone) return to the family manner in Son of Frankenstein (1939), Talbot returns home to a very much living father as a second choice heir, having to wait to take control. Despite Chaney’s massive size, Talbot is a character who is dominated by the world around him, literally and figuratively, from his father’s massive house to the fact that Talbot’s identity in the community is totally understood in terms of being the son of his father. Whatever accomplishments Talbot has made elsewhere in the world are of no value in this community. He lacks agency of his own, and the public nature of this lack sets in motion a crisis of masculinity which triggers the events of the rest of the film as he attempts to prove his worth as a male.

Talbot’s initial pursuit of Gwen is highly aggressive and voyeuristic, and it is this attempt to prove his masculine identity through sexual dominance which leads to a very different “masculine” display in his physical confrontation with a similar predator, the gypsy Bela (Bela Lugosi), whom is also a werewolf. The events surrounding the confrontation are filled with irony: while Talbot fails to save Jenny, he proves his physical prowess and “masculine worth” as community understands it by killing the predator Bela, only for the event to be misunderstood and used as proof of a possible mental weakness on the part of Talbot when the aftermath of the battle fails to match Talbot’s claimed experience. These multilayered ironies in the early third of The Wolf Man are a joy to behold, and set up a fascinating exploration of the failings of modern concepts of masculinity, which serve little more than to cover the base nature of the male animal in the film.

The second act of the film follows on from the first as Talbot’s status and identity come under the scrutiny of the entire community, and Talbot finds himself sidelined by doctors, police and his own father. Everyone feels that they know what happened about the death of Jenny and Bela, as well as whom Talbot is, more so than Talbot himself, resulting in his opinions and knowledge being dismissed and misunderstood. Chaney’s performance is at is most fantastic during these sections of the film, as he starts to unravel and his facial and physical reactions become increasingly similar to that of a frustrated child, assisted by the def direction from George Waggner. This is perhaps best encompassed in a scene in a church, as the camera tracks down the pews of people, each turning back and staring at Talbot at the back of the building, leading right to his father at the front of the church who turns to face his son with confusion, leading Talbot to run from the building. It is a powerful moment, and perhaps the film’s most memorable.

The film also takes on an interestingly feminist stance as female knowledge and power is upheld over that of institutionalised male knowledge and power. Talbot finds himself increasingly torn between the expectations of his father and the understanding of his situation that the motherly Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) holds, a point which is expanded beyond the familial to the societal in a moment when Maleva tries to save Gwen late in the film, only to be ignored. The ideals and leadership of patriarchy are not only destructive to the male, but to women who believe in it. It is no surprise when the film, towards the conclusion, features a scene in which the marginalized mother figure confronts the literal father, and undermines his false authority and beliefs.

So, given that the film is rich in ironies, complex ideas and features uniquely progressive gender politics, why the reserved recommendation on my part? Despite its great strengths, as a narrative, the film falls apart in the third act as its earlier failings in developing the supporting characters result in characters behaving in ways that are solely dictated by the needs of the plot. I am primarily referring to Gwen, who initially serves as little more than a figure for Talbot to lust after. This would be fine given that Talbot is the protagonist and that it is his psychology that is under examination if the third act didn’t honestly expect the viewer to believe that some form of love had developed between Gwen and Talbot. Gwen’s sudden turn to wanting to leave with Talbot when he runs away has no basis in the events that come earlier in the film, and smacks of the filmmakers having painted themselves into a corner. As wonderfully complex as the ending is, the manner in which it reaches this conclusion distracts the viewer from the meat of what is going on in the film.

Another problem plaguing the film is the sledgehammer to the head approach to explaining werewolf lore and foreshadowing of events. The poem recited by Gwen about men becoming werewolves is fine the first time, but by the third repetition in ten minutes time, it feels like over kill and a lack of trust on the part of the filmmakers towards the audience. This becomes most evident in the various speeches given by characters that sound like endless exposition rather than dialogue. In a seventy minute long film, it is too much repetition and explanation when the film really needs to begin to move forward. The end result is a film that, oddly enough for being about emotion and the breaking through of base animalistic traits, is stilted and reserved when it needs to be neither.

Yet I don’t want to take away from the end result either, for The Wolf Man is an understandable classic of the Universal Horror series, with more raw potential and ideas floating through it than either Frankenstein or Dracula. It is just that, unlike those films, the execution of The Wolf Man is not quite as flawless. As such, The Wolf Man remains a film that I oddly enough do not mind being remade, despite its classic status. There is an opportunity to make a film that, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), is every bit the better film than the already excellent original. With any luck, Joe Johnson and Benicio Del Toro will have pulled this off.

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