Wolf Man, The(SE)/B+,B+

Universal/1941/70m/FS 1.33/BW

      “Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself,” gypsy Maleva advises Larry Talbot. When things get really tough the old gypsy lady is on hand with comforting thoughts like ”The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.” While Maria Ouspenskaya delivers these lines with deadpan conviction, it’s easy to see how The Wolf Man could have been a hoot. It’s not! The actors take everything seriously enough to find the pathos in Larry Talbot’s situation. No sooner does Talbot reunite with his father after eighteen years abroad and fall head over heels for a local girl than the moon begins illuminate his fate and he is bitten by a werewolf.  And now you know the quote.

Yes, it's a wolf's head, Larry ©Universal

     The script is pretty straightforward with a little psychological hokum thrown in to beat around the bushes. But beating the bushes and bringing out the werewolf is what The Wolf Man is all about. He can’t resist the glow of the moon and the lycanthropic call of evil nature. The Wolf Man answers the primordial calls as his body transmogrifies into the hairy visage of an upright wolf. In the night he seeks out his prey and in the day he prays for his freedom from his horrible fate.
     The Wolf Man introduces its characters with animal efficiency. Director George Waggner races through the expository scenes to cut to the chase. Curt Siodmak’s script relies heavily on European folklore, letting the gypsy’s impart their wisdom in flowery language. The sets and photography provide a solid platform for Larry Talbot’s downfall.
     Lon Chaney, Jr. is effective in his most plaintiff moments as tortured Larry Talbot. The hulking actor’s pain may be all too obvious, but there is something about Chaney that makes you feel for him. Behind the chiseled face is great pain.  Classy Claude Rains seems about five sizes too small to play Chaney’s father, but the actor is commanding and Chaney plays deferential well. Of course, my favorite actor in The Wolf Man has to be Maria Ouspenskaya. She just has too much fun. She certainly gets the best lines and she hovers over the most important scenes, popping out of the shadows with fateful pronouncements. Solid Ralph Bellamy is pretty much wasted in the role of the local constable. 
     The elements for this transfer of The Wolf Man are quite wonderful. Except for a few scratches and some negative dirt, this is a very clean print with wonderful contrast and atmospheric lighting perfectly preserved. Blacks are rich and clothing patterns detailed and stable. There is not a abundance of film grain, quite typical on surviving films of more than fifty years ago. The sound is breathtakingly clean. The timber of Maria Ouspenskaya voice, rolling the lycanthropic incantations over Lugosi and Chaney is infused with an eerie beauty.
     Film Historian Tom Weaver does a nice job on the audio commentary providing lots of color on the actors and production. Film historians cannot resist the chance to talk about bit actors, but bear with Weaver. His delivery is comfortable and much of what he has to say enhances the experience of The Wolf Man.  I did not find the special documentary made for The Wolf Man had the same life as the Frankenstein efforts. The productions are beginning to feel too much alike, with commentators like special effects artist Rick Baker making similar appearances on camera in each one, even though Baker’s enthusiasm is welcome. 








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