Universal Monsters Week: The Wolf Man (1941)
“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.”
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the youngest in line for the family estate. He’s a man of considerable means, especially in comparison to the local village his family’s estate overlooks. He’s used to getting what he wants and not worrying about where what he wants or needs comes from.
He spies on the local village’s shopgirl Gwen Conliffe, and uses what he sees through a telescope to attempt to flirt with her. Larry Talbot is predatory long before he’s ever bitten by a wolf in The Wolf Man’s first act. He even jokes about Little Red Riding Hood with Gwen, as if winking at the audience. The rhyme repeated through the film, and at the top of this article, is as much about actual werewolves as it is about the darkness and bestial nature in all men.
Larry’s personality is already quite lupine when the film opens; called back to Talbot estate to bury his older brother, he moves around and gazes at his father, Sir John (Claude Rains, who you wouldn’t recognize from the Invisible Man article earlier this week) with eyes like a loyal but chastised dog. He practically drools all over Gwen in the shop, and growls at the locals with a shout when they blame her for another girl’s death the same night a wolf attacks Larry himself.
It’s only when that lupine nature begins affecting him directly that Larry laments it at all—his first transformation terrifies him, forcing the frightful traits within his heart to push themselves to the surface. These wolfen traits take control of Larry’s body, pushing him to hunt for blood with the same lust and verve with which he pursued Gwen earlier. His unchecked instincts leave him frantic in the morning, cleaning up after a black out much like an alcoholic or frenzied sex addict. Talbot is fully capable of guilt for his acts, but seeks help far too late.
In essence, Larry Talbot self-destructs in The Wolf Man not for embracing wolfen traits, but because he didn’t embrace the pack-centered, communal parts of it - as the youngest heir to the Talbot estate, he left home once realizing he wouldn’t be in line to inherit, and only returned for what his father saw as selfish reasons. Larry makes few attempts to ingratiate himself to the local village upon his return, which only further alienates him from any assistance when the bodies start piling up.
Where other cinematic werewolf stories end with the afflicted’s demise at the hand of authority, restoring the status quo with varying levels of satisfaction, The Wolf Man establishes such an ending as plainly necessary, in how it characterizes the man who is first bitten. And the film does so in tragic, gut-wrenching manner.
The terrifying, at the time, slow burn lap dissolve used to show the progress of Talbot’s transformation from man to wolf is historic. Filming the whole transformation, which started at his feet, took hours of dissolves where Chaney as Talbot would leave set, have more makeup applied (mostly yak hair) and return to match his previous sitting position (his being seated helped immensely in matching shot-to-shot) to achieve the proper progression, done about six times over the course of about ten hours.
Chaney, however, was found to have exaggerated the filming process, claiming he had to be literally nailed to the chair to get the shot properly, even claiming he was left nailed to the chair to maintain continuity while the crew wrapped for lunch in the meantime (Editor's Note: Sure, Jan). Cutting through the obvious PR stunt claims is the fact that the design for Chaney’s makeup was recycled from an earlier design that makeup artist Jack Pierce had intended for a 1935 film, Werewolf of London. As we’re discussing the makeup used on The Wolf Man, however, you can guess which film is more iconic.
Werewolf stories that came after The Wolf Man end similarly to this original work almost because it feels that this is how they must end (An American Werewolf in London’s ending comes to mind), where The Wolf Man’s inevitability is structured to be all the more tragic for it.
The Joe Johnston remake with Benicio Del Toro goes a lot heavier on mood than this character-oriented original. Rick Baker’s makeup is far more complex, befitting the master’s body of work overall. But the narrative suffers from a lack of focus and a detour into obscure and forgotten psychotherapy practices. But here, in George Waggner’s Wolf Man, the rugged individual returns to a communal environment, unsure of his own footing within, uncomfortable in his surroundings, like a caged beast. His solitary nature bristles at the ways of the shared community, even knowing ahead of time who he’ll come into conflict within it.
And that’s literal, in The Wolf Man’s case; Larry sees the “mark of the werewolf” on each of his next victims. That mark sends Larry reeling when he sees it finally on Gwen, after coming to her begging for help and to run away with her. He flees into the night, transforming into the wolf once again, until he comes upon Sir John, speaking with the old gypsy woman Maleva who warned Larry about the bite he received. Larry makes short work of Maleva, and then turns on Sir John.
Sir John crashes Larry’s own silver-handled cane down upon him, and the pained cries the Wolf Man lets out are neither entirely man or animal. The conflict within Larry, demonstrated through the transformed man’s anguished yelps, only comes to peace when Sir John delivers the final blow to his own son. Larry the man is restored before us as he will be remembered: a tragic and conflicted victim of his own nature.