It's a lovely movie, even if I eventually decided I find it slightly incomplete. The first time I watched it, I couldn't think of a single criticism. It does what it does almost perfectly, with Lon Chaney Jr charming the birds out of the trees. This wasn't Universal's first werewolf film, having also done Werewolf of London in 1935, but Chaney's Larry Talbot is the one who ended up starring in five movies.
The nearest I have to a complaint is about what this movie isn't. It's a tragedy about a terrible thing happening to a good, kind man, all of which is excellent. What it's not, oddly enough, is very interested in its werewolf. We see Larry Talbot struggling to come to terms with what's happening to him. We see everyone around him refusing to believe that anything supernatural might be happening, instead seeing the situation purely in psychological terms. Then it ends. There's no exploration of what it's like to become a monster, almost nothing about how this might affect your personality and behaviour even at the times when you're still human. The werewolf has the potential to be the most fascinating of all the major movie monsters, but this film never goes internal with it.
Even the sequels didn't really develop Talbot's character, except by making him short-tempered and depressed. The best of them from a Talbot fan's point of view is Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, which even brings back Maria Ouspenskaya's character and makes an excellent companion piece to this one. However I don't know if anything I've said yet could even be called criticism. I feel like someone bashing Macbeth because Banquo's ghost doesn't climb out of a TV set and kill people. They're using a iconic movie monster to tell a very specific story. It's perhaps not the story I'd choose to tell, but so what? That's laudable, surely? Good storytelling is all about choices.
What's more, they're not just using an icon but creating it. This film introduced the ideas of werewolves being marked with a pentagram, shapeshifting under a full moon (although we don't actually see it) and even werewolves rather than vampires being vulnerable to silver. No, really. Apparently in traditional folklore it's the other way around. The pentagram and nursery rhyme are silly, but they work. It seemed odd that everyone knows that poem, but I suppose this is an England where lycanthropes are real. What's more, as with Werewolf of London, it's clearly a wolf-man rather than a full wolf, although the one that bites Chaney in the first place is more dog-like.
I suppose Chaney's make-up looks a bit daft, but I've seen worse. Movie werewolves always look rubbish.
However having said all that, I liked the scene where Lon Chaney wakes up and starts scrubbing away wolf footprints. That's the nearest we get to wondering how all this might be affecting him. Is he protecting the monster? Is he protecting himself? Would he even be able to answer that question? Larry Talbot is as sweet as only Chaney can be, but he's drawn a little too specifically to be an everyman. By his own admission, he's no intellectual. He doesn't think about things. He tends to react even when it's not a good idea, as for instance with his pursuit of a woman (Evelyn Ankers) who's engaged to another man. That's an extraordinary thing to have put in the script and I'm mildly gobsmacked that Chaney makes it work. He's so gentle and childlike that he manages to seem innocent even when he kisses her. Admitting to having used a telescope to spy on her through her bedroom window is another, ah, surprising moment.
His American accent might perhaps have been reassuring to American audiences, though. I've yet to see Chaney try to do an accent, which is probably a good thing here since it's better to be natural in a character you'll be playing over five films. Well, at least Talbot had just returned from eighteen years in California. He has an excuse. It's not like Son of Dracula.
Apparently Chaney was rightly proud of this role, which would be the only one of Universal's major monsters to be played throughout by the same actor. He's as good as ever here, apart from one moment where his natural gentleness gets in the way. The script calls on him to take an angry step forward. Er, nice try, Lon. He's backed up by a solid supporting cast, the best of whom is Claude "Casablanca" Rains as his father, Sir John Talbot. The nearest thing to a bad performance is Ralph Bellamy's Colonel Montford, who's so natural and likeable that it took me two viewings to realise what a joke he is as a chief constable. He's like a dilettante country gentleman having a laugh. At the scene of a double homicide, one doesn't usually pick up the murder weapon with one's bare hands, for instance. Before you ask, Scotland Yard founded the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau in 1901. But hey, maybe that's what chief constables were like in 1941.
There's also Bela Lugosi. His character's called Bela. Maria Ouspenskaya's playing his old Gypsy mother and a little less wonderful than she perhaps should have been. Good screen presence, but her first language was not English. Amusingly she was also only six years older than Lugosi, although I wouldn't have guessed.
The relationships in this film are unusual. The central romance is as I've previously described, so I don't know in what way I should be referring to it. "Romance" seems wrong. I don't think English has a word for it. Then there's the curious fact that the film is riddled with parents. Chaney, Ankers, Lugosi and even the werewolf's first victim all get a paternal presence in the script, the last of those being a poisonous old bat whose main contribution is to make this pastoral English small town a little less cosy. I liked all that. Having a girlfriend as the only important relationship in your werewolf movie means you'll end up with the predictable climax of "wolf + girl". Certainly in 1941, there wasn't much chance of the film showing us Evelyn Ankers beating Lon Chaney to death with his own cane.
They make a hash of a good idea with a dog barking at werewolf. They wanted a more forceful dog. More importantly though, having shown us that scene, we later have one outside at night in which Chaney goes up to people holding back bloodhounds... which don't turn a hair.
This is a lovely little film and the most explicit tragedy of Universal's horror stable. What's more, apparently its script was influenced by writer Curt Siodmak's time in Nazi Germany. Just like Larry Talbot, his hitherto normal life was thrown into chaos and he found himself on the run. Even the pentagram makes more sense with this interpretation. The wolfman is an otherwise good man whose mind is clouded and becomes a vicious killer whose next victim will be marked with a pentagram (i.e. a star). Brrrr. Despite being a horror movie released after the attack on Pearl Harbor, this became one of Universal's top grossers and I'm not at all surprised. There's lots of room to expand things in the 2009 remake with Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro, but saying that doesn't diminish the original at all.
Strangely enough, I can hardly think of any iconic werewolf movies. This however is one of them.