Friday, December 3, 2010

THE WOLF MAN (1941)

On December 5, 1957, in a town near Marion, Indiana, two gunmen forced their way into the home of Ted Edwards and his wife as they were entertaining a visit from Mrs. Edwards's sister and brother-in-law. Their faces covered by the upturned lapels of their raincoats, the intruders ordered the Edwards and their guests to turn off all the lights in the house except the TV. As one of the gunman sat in the living room with the hostages and watched television, the other took Edwards four miles by car to the furniture store where Edwards worked as manager. There, Edwards was forced to open the safe and hand over "several hundred dollars"; later, Edwards and the robber returned, and the two perpetrators made their getaway in the Edwards's car.

The reporter for the UPI syndicated story played up the coincidence that a community theater production of The Desperate Hours had been staged a mere six blocks from the furniture store as it was being plundered (you may have seen the 1955 Paramount movie version with Humphrey Bogart as one of a trio of escaped convicts who hold a suburban Indianapolis family hostage in their home), but I want to point to a different detail: while the safe at the store was being robbed, "Edwards said the second gunman stayed behind and watched THE WOLF MAN, a murder mystery show, on television while Mrs. Edwards and the guests lay on the floor, their hands and feet tied, for two hours."

My best guess is that the bandit who kept the hostages on ice was watching the Indianapolis CBS affiliate WISH-Channel 8 during the robbery. Channel 8 had purchased the SHOCK! package from Screen Gems and broadcast them on the "Fright Night" showcase Fridays at 10:45 PM (starting in Fall 1958, these films were to be horror-hosted at WISH-TV by Selwin). December 5, 1957--- the night of the furniture store safe robbery ---would have been the television broadcast premiere of THE WOLF MAN for that particular market. Because the robbery took two hours, the gunman was presumably able to watch the entire telecast. (There must be more to this story, right? Doesn't it seem strange that it took two hours to drive the eight miles to and from the furniture store from the Edwards home and burgle the safe that you knew the combination of?)

(And while I'm digressing: I guess describing THE WOLF MAN as "a murder mystery show" as the UPI story does seems a little peculiar, too. It was a popular film when it was released in 1941 and it enjoyed many theatrical re-releases, so certainly people recognized that it was more of a "horror melodrama" than a "murder mystery." But then look at this television listing for the movie:

Indiana [PA] Evening Gazette, Wednesday November 8, 1958

It is technically accurate, but would you synopsize the movie in that way? It would be like writing "A girl tries to run away from home when her dog is seized for destruction by a sheriff's order" as a description for THE WIZARD OF OZ.)

There's no denying that THE WOLF MAN is a classic, "classic" in the sense that it is "timeless in its relevance and accomplishment." Unlike DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, or THE MUMMY, there's very little creaky in THE WOLF MAN that needs to be excused as "a product of its time." Despite the faint whiff of trendy (for Hollywood in the 1940s) and oh-so-modern psychoanalytic theory that screenwriter Curt Siodmak wafts over the proceedings, THE WOLF MAN feels mythic--- it unspools like a fable or a fairy tale, following a tragic arc that we've seen a zillion times in literature and motion pictures but nonetheless manages to ring true as an insight into the human condition and experience. Somewhere between Mr. Hyde and the Incredible Hulk, the Wolf Man is a Jungian "shadow" that haunts each of us, forever threatening to slip out from under our very best and well-intentioned efforts to be good, civilized, disciplined, well-behaved, and nice to each other.

And because the struggle is intimately familiar to all of us, the monster is one that arouses sympathy as well as fear. When that dark side breaks loose inside of us (to return to Marion, IN, for a second, it is that feeling that we are all helpless hostages to our own home-invading gunmen), there is a terrible feeling of dismay and the dread feeling that it will happen again. When it appeared on TV as part of SHOCK!, THE WOLF MAN may have had a special connection to people living in the anxious Cold War atmosphere of the late 1950s where conformity and self-restraint were seen as vital components of homeland security (I recommend K.A. Cuordileone's Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War for deeper meditations on all that).

It's no surprise, really, that THE WOLF MAN has forever set the standard for reluctant, doomed lycanthropes that have shown up on movie and TV screens since 1941. For example, Paul Naschy's hombre lobo, Waldemar Daninsky, uses Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Talbot/werewolf as a point of reference and a touchstone; Naschy, whose films are so obviously inspired by the Universal horror classics, makes the werewolf his own, but he does so in a way that references Chaney's Talbot and then continues that arc into his own work. In the process, Naschy's hombre lobo is not some derivative rip-off, but a deeper exploration of familiar ground. I'll probably never bother to get around to seeing Benicio del Toro's THE WOLF MAN from earlier this year, but I can't imagine that he does anything to improve or expand upon Chaney's work that Naschy hadn't already done (and with a lot less money).

But still, I have to say that--- as iconic as it is --Chaney's Talbot is a little over his head. Though he's damn good as the ferocious and fearsome werewolf, Lon is painfully miscast as the gentry scion of Talbot Castle and estates. Chaney doesn't seem to get "tragedy" in the dramatic sense and plays it instead as a privileged bratty guy who feels entitled to a better shake than what he's getting. I was watching Edmund O'Brien in D.O.A. (1950) the other night; O'Brien's character follows a very similar arc to Chaney's Talbot--- cocky, self-assured guy has the bottom drop out and then he discovers that "the way he walks is thorny, through no fault of his own." He is suddenly at war with terrifying lethal forces inside of his body that he can't understand. Maybe it's not fair to compare Chaney to O'Brien, but if you can imagine the latter's work in D.O.A. as Talbot, then you can see what I mean.

Claude Rains is spot-on as Sir John; usually you can depend on Rains to chew up the scenery like a termite, but his performance here is understated and restrained, as if he didn't want to thoroughly swamp Chaney (or Ralph Bellamy, for that matter) in his scenes. Evelyn Ankers is completely unbelievable as the small-town Welsh girl, but she does an excellent job acting emotionally drawn to a charisma-less creep who has been spying on her bedroom with a telescope and who won't take "no" for an answer (her acting is even more impressive when you read about the behind-the-scenes friction between Ankers and Chaney on the set). And props to Maria Ouspenskaya for her work, too--- the scenes between Maleva and Talbot are Chaney's worst work in THE WOLF MAN, but Ouspenskaya keeps it together well. Finally, I want to say that it's too bad that budget and shooting schedule wouldn't allow for Lugosi's gypsy werewolf to get the full make-up treatment... I would've loved to see that.


Chester [PA] Times, Saturday October 25, 1958

Nowadays, sadly, "late late show" refers to a celebrity publicity-driven talkshows hosted by smug chuckleheads rather than interesting
overnight movie presentations.





NEXT: "A behind-the-scenes view of murder in a wax museum will thrill you when SHOCK presents Lon Chaney in THE FROZEN GHOST on this channel!"

4 comments:

Mirek said...

One of Naschy's greatest influences was a viewing, when he was a kid, of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. The theater owner actually should not have let him in to the then age-restricted film, but eventually did after several pleas.

Naschy embraced the werewolf character because the pathos and humanity were evident, as opposed to other "classic monsters."

prof. grewbeard said...

what a fascinating site, i'm so glad i finally stumbled upon it! too young for "Shock!" but old enough to remember the late, late show(in late 60s Houston we had "Wide World of Weird" on the local ABC affiliate and "Science Fiction Theater" on in the afternoons and by the seventies had a horror host(Captain Harold and Melvin, The Dummy Mummy), i've always been "dying" to know more about the phenomena that started it all!

The Creeping Bride said...

Glad you found us, prof... I started this viewing project back in mid-Oct, so you haven't missed much. And we've got a long way to go yet. Stick around!

kochillt said...

Insightful comments that ring so true. I felt this was Evelyn Ankers' best work in the genre, never more luminous on screen. Chaney's first two Talbot performances are also among his greatest work, and this is clearly the best writing in Curt Siodmak's often spotty career. I shed a tear at the conclusion here, just as I did for OF MICE AND MEN, guess I'm a real Chaney booster on this site! As an adult, with all the criticism that Chaney has endured over the years, it's hard to believe it's him under all the yak hair makeup, he's so completely in character. Perhaps the most perceptive comment about him is that he lacked the intangible qualities of Lugosi or Karloff, to rise above the material and make a bad movie watchable. THE WOLF MAN aired 9 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, and was part of the final show on Dec 31 1983, coupled with IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, both personal favorites of host Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille (it had been 6 years since its previous airing).