Retro Review: The Wolf Man (1941).
Universal’s classic werewolf movie wolfs down its story instead of letting audiences sink their teeth into a hearty plot.
Covering the history of werewolves in cinema for October meant we were going to spend time with Lon Chaney Jr.’s iconic wolf man sooner or later. Unfortunately, the time spent is an all too brief hour and nine minutes. You can see the hallmarks that have made this one of the most celebrated films in the genre: cool effects, creepy atmosphere, and a tragic protagonist. All trait’s shared with Universal’s magnum opus, Frankenstein. The problem with The Wolf Man is that Larry Talbot and his furry curse aren’t given enough space to howl. Four sequels may make up for this shortcoming, but 1941’s The Wolf Man is too often a quick bite instead of a full course meal.
The Wolf Man (1941).
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the estranged son of a wealthy Welsh lord. After 18 years abroad, he returns home due to the untimely death of his older brother. He reconciles with his aristocratic father (Claude Rains) and goes about getting to know his subjects…particularly the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). Trying to woo her, he takes Gwen and her friend to see a pair of Gypsy fortunetellers. On the way home the other young lady is attacked by a wolf which Larry kills, getting bitten in the process. The wolf turns back into the younger fortuneteller (Bela Legosi) and the older Gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs Larry that he has killed a werewolf…and become one himself in the process!
The Wolf Man follows in the pedigree of Universal’s hits: Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein. It has elaborate sets, seamless matte paintings, sweeping music, and several of Universal’s legendary stars. The story is appropriately suspenseful, making the audience watch a good man be rewarded for his heroism by a tragic curse that turns him into a mindless killing machine. All of the key elements are in place, and had The Wolf Man come before these other iconic films, it would have felt like a natural part of the studio’s evolution. As it followed these films by a decade, it winds up feeling like a lesser outing using a familiar formula.
A Fleeting Transformation.
The Wolf Man is just too short. Dracula got an hour and a half to tell its (truncated) version of Bram Stoker’s story. Frankenstein got two hours to work with Mary Shelley’s classic. At just past an hour with credits, The Wolf Man isn’t so much rushed as missing important elements. For what story it does tell, the pacing is decent: it gives you the beats of the story while sustaining tension with a fast pace. It misses out on chances, though, to make the events more meaningful by going so quickly.
We hardly know Larry. His tragedy is simply the werewolf curse. Lon Chaney Jr. makes him a very sympathetic guy with his facial expressions and mannerisms, but he’s just a cypher. His flight from his family and the expectations of his regal father are not developed into any major character or story element. He could have been a truly tragic figure; instead he’s just an unlucky nice guy.
The setting is underdeveloped and becomes a generic “creepy European backwater with a castle.” We don’t get a feel for the relationship between the lord and his people, or even what kind of place Talbot castle is, except exceptionally foggy at night. Frankenstein and Dracula are epics because they touch on so many societal issues and are filled with archetypes and analogies. The monsters mean something, and are given time to develop significance. The Wolf Man pays lip service to themes of good versus evil, old versus new, pagan versus Christian, and external monsters versus internal, psychological demons. None of it rises to the level of allegory, or is given time to be meaningful.
It’s hard to beat up a classic, especially one from such a different era. It has the misfortune of following two true legends. Most of the rest of Universal’s line up is much more Wolf Man than Frankenstein (except for The Phantom of the Opera in 1943, which probably edges even Dracula for second place in the pantheon.) Nearly a century of monster movies have made for unkind comparisons. It’s not deep enough for fans of great storytelling, nor is it filled with enough chills and thrills for fans of pulp. Like Larry, it is an unfortunate beast caught between conflicting desires.
That’s not to say it is a bad movie. Its story is simple but effective, and it maintains its singular focus. The acting is good, except for poor Bela Legosi trying to make hay with his absurdly tiny role. The sets contain some really gorgeous locations. The film quality and cinematography is solid. If you’d never seen another monster movie, The Wolf Man would scratch your itch just fine. Looking back 76 years later, you can spot a the thin spots on this werewolf’s pelt where more depth would have made it a masterpiece.