By the time “The Wolf Man” was released in 1941, the monster movie genre had found its momentum and worked like a well-oiled machine. Monsters were being put to death in one film, and then always efficiently resurrected for the next sequel. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays Larry Talbot, who returns home after many years abroad to the English estate of his father, played by Claude Rains.
The film begins without lightning storms, dark shadows, or any gloom at all. It is sunny and cheerful, and Larry is welcomed home by his father and by old friend Ralph Bellamy, now a police inspector in the village. Pretty soon there are Gypsies and a lot of fog, and then trouble starts.
We are given a glance at an encyclopedia entry which explains that lycanthropy, or werewolfism, has been known to happen at places like Talbot Castle. This gives us the standard believe-it-or-not challenge to enjoy the film.
Bela Lugosi plays a very different role as a Gypsy who is also a werewolf. He is almost unrecognizable from his Count Dracula role, now with a walrus mustache, his Gypsy native attire, and his bushy hair with no courtly manners and no Brylcreem in sight. His role is brief, however, when he gets clubbed by the sliver-headed cane of Larry, who kills what he thinks is a wolf attacking his new lady friend’s best friend.
His new friend, who is affianced to Patric Knowles in another small role, recites the now famous werewolf poem:
“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”
If you didn’t catch it the first time, that’s okay because it gets repeated a few more times and you’ll know it by heart by the end of the movie.
The wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya plays the Gypsy mother of Bela Lugosi, who mourns her son but is comforted that his torment is over. Larry will eventually turn to her for help. Whenever she is around it gets very foggy.
We know who the next victim is going to be because a pentagram always appears in the palm of the next victim. This, and the dissolve shots which show transformation of Mr. Chaney into a werewolf are the main special effects of this film.
When Larry is first bitten, he heads home and checks his hands and arms. So far, so good. Not too much hair, and he does not need a shave yet. But when he checks his feet and pulls up his trouser legs and shows us his gams, we see it’s too late. Time lapse photography shows his feet turning into monstrous paws.
There are debates among his father, the cop, and the local doctor about werewolfism being a kind of schizophrenia, that it is more psychological than physical, more about, as his father tells Larry, “The good and evil in every man’s soul.” This is 1941, and the film was released just after Pearl Harbor, so there is a bit more being tossed around here than the literal transformation of a man to a monster.
When they are off to church, his father tells the anguished Larry, “Belief in the hereafter is a very healthy counterbalance to all the conflicted doubts man is plagued with these days.”
In Larry’s last transformation into a werewolf in the foggy woods, all the principle characters chase him there, either to kill or to help him, his father, the doctor, the cop, his girlfriend, and the Gypsy woman. There is a brief, but fine showdown between the elegant actors Miss Ouspenskaya and Mr. Rains as he interrogates her but she displays only a fatalistic and calm superiority. When Larry takes the form of a wolf, his own father clubs him to death, and when Larry resumes his peaceful, but now dead, human form, the townspeople assume he died protecting the young woman from a wolf. Neither his grieving father nor the sympathetic Gypsy woman speak the truth. Who would believe them? There’s no such thing as werewolves.
Mr. Chaney is not the actor his father was, but he carries the role of the doomed Larry Talbot with a kind of sad dignity. As Patric Knowles says of Talbot, “There’s something very tragic about that man.”