The Wolf Man is a 1941 film directed by George Waggner and written by Curt Siodmak. The audience loved it back then, and it inaugurated a second wave of non-silent horror movies after that the first one, which began with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, had gone out with infinite sequels and minor films (among them, also one with another werewolf: Werewolf of London, 1935). The film also launched Lon Chaney Jr. as the new star of the genre after Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff had fought for the same title for a whole decade.
The plot is as simple as it can be. Lon Chaney plays Larry, the youngest son of John Talbot (Claude Rains) who returns to his father’s home after the eldest son of the latter dies in an accident. He immediately spies on the beautiful Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) with a telescope and follows her in a decidedly disturbing way (let’s face it: he’s a stalker). He convinces her to go out with him and she takes her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) with her. They visit some gypsies, and there’s a werewolf among them (Bela, played by Bela Lugosi) who kills Jenny and then is killed by the young Talbot with a silver-handled staff. Bela, however, had managed to bite him before he received the coup de grace.
During the night, the bodies of Jenny and Bela are found, and since the blows of a blunt object are evident on the body of the latter, Larry Talbot becomes the number one suspect in his murder. Meanwhile, he also becomes a werewolf!
Exactly eighty years after its release, Waggner’s film is still entertaining. With its almost seventy minutes of duration, it tells the story without too many frills. In fact, after just half an hour everything that is happening is explained by Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya). Universal Studios knew how to make this type of film well, and in Lon Chaney Jr. they also found an actor who the audience loved so much and who became extremely popular (although to me, a modern viewer, he seems wooden). He ended up playing the werewolf in five Universal films, the whole saga!
The sets are sumptuous, including those of the exteriors obviously shot in the Studios, and very suggestive (they reminded me of those of Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio, Black Sunday, 1960). The sountrack is also beautiful and the cast in support of the protagonist is remarkable. Rains, of course (shortly after he would appear in Casablanca, 1942), but even Bela Lugosi in a small but important part, and all the others do not look bad either (indeed, compared to Chaney they look great!).
As for the plot, there’s something weird in the fact that Larry who, even if suspected of murder, is left free to do whatever he wants. He admits to be the owner of the murder weapon and the police leave it to him! I also found it strange that the transformation into a wolf (only partial, for no real reason) occurs every night, and not just with a full moon. But on the other hand Siodmak created his own myth of the werewolf, he took only inspiration from folklore.
And then why is Bela’s mother still in the vicinity of the castle in the finale, despite all the gypsies having left long before? And who can explain Gwen’s falling in love with Larry, what did he do to deserve her love? In short, at the narrative level it’s inevitable for a such an old film to suffer a little. But the rest is amazing! The atmosphere, the sets, the direction, the music, the special effects… I would recommend it without hesitation to anybody! Ciao!
PS: I loved the thirty-minute documentary on the making of the film contained in the DVD and presented by none other than John Landis! Priceless!