The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

This was my first John le Carré novel, and I listened to it as an audiobook in the car. It was read by Michael Jayston (known to Doctor Who fans as the Valeyard), who was superb at conveying subtle shades of emotion among men trained not to show any, and at differentiating characters with slight accents who are recruited to be very much like one another. The material of the novel is often very dry, consisting of the mildest of interrogations in relatively relaxed circumstances concerning esoteric espionage situations. It is to James Bond what The Thin Man is to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and it’s to the considerable credit of le Carré and Jayston that the audiobook was remorselessly gripping.

I can imagine a better film adaptation, one that would perhaps have done a better job of helping less attentive viewers follow both the plot and the details, but I can’t imagine a classier one. This is savagely compressed, with some abrupt and slightly awkward cuts and a lot of key events left offscreen and implied. For example, we see almost nothing of Smiley’s conversation with Nan Perry (called Liz Gold in the book; the new name avoids identifying her too closely with Fiedler or with Liz Taylor, apparently), and if you blink you might miss that Leamas goes to prison. Fiedler’s debrief of Leamas is much shortened, perhaps mercifully, but so is the arrest, losing one of the book’s most viscerally exciting and cinematic scenes in which Leamas fakes out several German guards and incidentally kills one in self-defense. But the acting is top-notch, particularly Oskar Werner as poor Fiedler and Cyril Cusack as Control. Of course Richard Burton is terrific; at first I wasn’t sure I liked him as Leamas, whom I’d pictured a bit leaner in the face and a bit more capable of blending in — you can’t mistake Burton for someone who’d ever be tossed aside by an intelligence organization and left to defect. But he gives an undeniably convincing performance as a dissolute drunk.

I don’t remember hearing any incidental music at all — just theme music at the beginning and end. This left me free, perhaps obligated, to fill in my own sense of tension and climax, which I wholeheartedly appreciated.

The ending is devastating, and even though I knew exactly what it was, I still found myself mentally urging Leamas to step over the wall, go now, before it’s too late! It’s as sad as it is perfect. This may be the most adult film I’ve watched in this now-hopelessly-behind-schedule project of mine. In that I’m not sure it will be surpassed.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’d hoped to watch The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as this week’s movie, but I still had about an hour to go on the audiobook and I wanted to wait till I was done. So I looked into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Bourne Identity, and even Die Hard as substitutes, but none of them were available to me for free, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original Swedish version) was. I’m not sure any of those would have been better, but I wasn’t terribly impressed.

The cinematography was quite nice, and I enjoyed the fact that Lis Salander is reasonably unconventional as heroines go. The parts of the movie I enjoyed most involved her kicking ass, and the ones I found most gripping and affecting were the ones in which she was agonized for various reasons. I found Mikael Blomqvist a much less compelling protagonist, in part because he’s played by a rather unappealing actor and in part because his connection to the plot, though they’ve tried to make it personal and relate it to his childhood, is tissue-thin and emotionally uninvolving.

The plot itself was the worst part for me, a baroque serial-killer / family secret story that seemed overly elaborate and unlikely even by the standards of this sort of film. I almost laughed out loud when I saw the critical photo showing the killer wearing the identifying casual blue sweater in the midst of a bunch of men in suits, and had no idea how to get interested in a scenario with somewhere around forty possible suspects with no motivation in sight. I was confused by the largely irrelevant corporate scandal thread that bookends the film, and never got a clear grasp of the relationships most of the characters bore to one another.

Then there’s the rape angle toward the beginning, which to the film’s credit is generally directed so as to be horrifying rather than exploitative, but which can’t help feeling a little gratuitous in the grand scheme. It also complicates Salander’s out-of-nowhere physical (but not especially emotional) affair with Blomqvist, which I found spectacularly difficult to swallow let alone stomach, in light of all the other men in her life. I couldn’t help feeling as though Blomqvist was more of an authorial stand-in than an actual character, and that Salander’s initiation of sex with him was more wishful fantasy than anything well-thought-out.

Still, I’ve seen worse movies, and I wouldn’t refuse to watch the sequel. Just not anytime soon.

Soylent Green

Anyone who’s heard the title of this film more than once knows the two words that come after it, so when I sat down to watch it earlier this week, I was worried that it would be ruined by knowing the secret from the outset. But though the famous reveal is endlessly quotable, it almost seems anticlimactic compared to the horrifying dystopia that precedes it.

The dimly lit (by power generated via exercise bike) apartment Charlton Heston (as a police detective who dresses more like the missing Dockworker Village Person) shares with an old man named Sol seems like a palace compared to how most people apparently live. It’s squalid and small, but at least it contains shelves full of books and there’s room to move around, shave, get dressed. Outside, he has to pick his way over people sleeping on the stairs, so numerous and tightly packed that he can barely find room to step. The world is overpopulated, the streets are teeming with people, and the majority of them are hungry, so they’re reliant on rationing of small food tablets, somewhere in between soda crackers, fig bars, and communion wafers. In Blade Runner real animals are scarce; in Soylent Green it’s real food that’s scarce, so that a tiny jar of strawberry jam or even a leaf of real lettuce seems like the most exotic of delicacies.

But of course there’s still a rich upper class that live in glorious apartments, decorated in 1973’s best idea of what luxury would look like in the future (it works for me, but then I dig the 70s), and often equipped with beautiful concubines who are part of the rental package and referred to disparagingly as “furniture.” And when one of these rich men who seems to know too much is brutally murdered, Thorn (Heston) is determined to solve the murder, kicking off the investigation that eventually leads him to that climactic reveal. Along the way there’s plenty to appreciate in terms of details about how this society works (or doesn’t), with food riots, assisted suicide centers, and a climate of deprivation so drastic that Thorn is sold on an evening of lovemaking with a beautiful woman only when he learns they’ll be able to take a real shower with actual hot water.

It seems as though this type of science fiction film — intelligent, socially relevant, adult — all but disappeared for a decade or two after Star Wars. As much as I loved Star Wars as a kid (and, to a lesser degree, now), I’m not sure it was a good trade.

In the Loop

Last time I tried to watch this, I really wasn’t in the mood. Today I was. I liked it.

The first half hour or so was still a bit rough going. I didn’t particularly like any of the people I was meeting or any of the non-jokes they were telling. Malcolm Tucker still seemed like a guy who existed to chew people out with overly baroque threats and lots of F-bombs, and all the milquetoasts around him were…well, “milquetoast” sounds too pleasant and tasty a word, really. “Milk toast” is what it sounds like. Creamy, crisp, comforting. None of the characters are all three.

But then they aren’t supposed to be, I guess. Because this is, to my perhaps politically myopic eyes, a story about vicious, bullying, unstoppable Machiavellians who want war and the bumbling, cowardly, ineffectual doofuses who utterly fail to stop it. And if so, perhaps it’s a far more urgent political satire than I’d expected.

The doofuses barely have convictions at all, and the script has them half-assing and questioning and denying every positive step they take. They attempt to suppress their own dove-leaning report because it’s politically unpopular, and when it’s nearly too late, they botch the job of leaking it properly. Simon Foster, the joke of an MP at the center of the film is, yes, a joke of an MP, dithering about the “lighthearted” question he’d like to nail on tomorrow’s chat show appearance, swallowing his foot in every public statement, failing even to help his constituents with minor residential issues, failing to resign decisively in protest of the war decision, and even failing to masturbate to a shark documentary (don’t ask). It should be funny, but it isn’t, quite, because either Foster is a complete fiction with no basis in reality, in which case there’s no biting satire to be had, or he’s a legitimate exaggeration of what some real politicians are like, in which case I find myself wanting to cry instead of laugh. He’s the David Brent of politics, by design, I’m assuming, and those characters always ride the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

So when the Furies descend upon Foster (only two of them, male, Scottish), and step in to take control of the situation, even though they’re allied with the forces of evil it’s hard not to root for them, and that’s really uncomfortable. We’re happy to watch these professional assholes barracuda their way through all these bubbleheads. We like watching Jamie MacDonald kick fax machines to pieces. We like seeing Malcolm Tucker go toe-to-toe with General Miller and take him down, even though the General is the one who appreciates the cost of war and is working to prevent it. It would be a boring story if we liked everyone we agreed with and loathed everyone we didn’t, and yet it’s pretty much the polar opposite. Staffer Toby Wright, for instance, is the most punchable character I’ve seen in a film in a long time, and he’s the one who comes closest to stopping the war (well, with the considerable aid of his ex-girlfriend, which is part of the problem).

Still, I’m glad I watched it, not least because I now see how satisfying it’s going to be to watch Peter Capaldi sort out the Daleks. He won’t do it by swearing at them, but the much-vaunted swearing isn’t what makes the character. It’s the steel behind it, and I can’t imagine we won’t see quite a bit of that next fall.


For the last October movie of the week, I let myself bend the rules and watch a movie I’ve already seen. This was partly a birthday present to myself, and partly a chance to spend some long-distance quality time with my girlfriend. We kept a Skype session open and watched it simultaneously, 100-some-odd miles apart. It was worth the compromise.

Ghostbusters is somehow fundamental to my understanding of how cinematic entertainment works. Because I grew up in the 80s, because I grew up watching this over and over, having videotaped the censored version from network TV (I can’t remember what Ray calls Peck in that version but it’s not “dickless”), this feels natural and unmediated and inevitable, the way a movie would be made if it were possible to make a movie without really thinking about how to do it. It’s not just that many of the moments are imprinted on my mind, it’s not just that they’re good scenes (funny, well-constructed, fresh despite their age), it’s that they somehow could not be any other way than they are. It’s as though this movie has always existed and just needed to be uncovered, like a perfect fossil covered with a thin layer of dust.

So I can’t really be critical about it. I was as entertained last night as I’ve ever been by it, which is to say thoroughly. It still amazes me that someone came up with the premise, particularly at just the right time for me (preadolescent encyclops loved to haunt the paranormal section of the Dewey Decimal system), and it makes me happy that that someone was Dan Aykroyd. I’m still impressed by how snugly the script fits, how charming it remains, how little it’s dated if you’re not looking at it. I still love how Sigourney Weaver elevates her part from damsel in distress to what seems like a credible woman (albeit one understandably out of her depth), how adorably nerdy Rick Moranis is, how appealing Ray and Egon and Janine are as characters (Venkman…well, he has his moments), how wacked-out-new-wave-video Gozer is. I love how there’s just enough religion in it to create a sense of foreboding, but how the instrument of apocalypse is a Sumerian god and how she’s dispatched by (weird) science. I love the practical effects, and the not-so-practical effects, the only unforgivable ones being a few stop-motion superimposed dog sequences that don’t quite work. I love that there’s really no message, no theme, no art here of any kind: just pure, honorable, good-hearted entertainment of the sort that only the 80s have really been able to deliver since they decided black-and-white movies were finally passé.

Or maybe I just think that because the 80s were when I formed my ideas of what movies were. The result, for me, is the same either way. Sitting on the couch, next to my girlfriend (or at least my girlfriend’s face and voice on my iPad), sharing a childhood classic that’s funny with just the merest hint of spooky: I can think of no better way to celebrate Halloween.

Tales from the Hood

Last Sunday’s movie was supposed to be Lair of the White Worm, but since Netflix didn’t have that, I took my girlfriend’s sage advice and watched Tales from the Hood instead. I’m glad I did. Not because it was a great movie, but because half of it was, and because I’ve never really seen anything like it.

Of course I’ve seen “horror anthology” movies before — not Tales from the Crypt, to which the title is a clear allusion, but certainly the Creepshows, Cat’s Eye, and probably a few others. But I can’t remember seeing one before with such a split personality. Half of the tales are straightforward to the point of absurdity, featuring white men who are pathologically, unapologetically racist getting their just desserts. It’s hard to get too involved in these segments, partly because the characters in supernatural peril are so roundly unsympathetic that their deaths are both welcome and inevitable, and partly because the segments themselves are predictable from the beginning. The first has a nice twist, but nothing that really makes what’s come before worth watching. It’s almost pleasant to watch these cartoonishly horrible white people being picked off in relatively pedestrian ways, which is a problem, because a horror movie isn’t really supposed to be pleasant as far as I know.

Fortunately, if that’s the word I want, the other two segments are anything but pleasant. One concerns a young boy who’s being abused by a monster in his home and has an unusual power that helps him fight back. It’s startlingly vivid and well-paced compared to the foregoing Bad White Cops piece, and while it once again features a villain we’re happy to see destroyed, it has the storytelling sense to give us some real danger to characters we care about so that this matters to us. The resolution isn’t possible, but the premise is all too possible, and gut-wrenching to watch. Some of the characters are a little more three-dimensional; I particularly appreciated that the boy’s mother is allowed to be flirtatious without being punished for it. Maybe it’s only the whiter horror films that have a virgin-whore complex? I’d like to hope so.

Then there’s the last segment, which manages to outdo the second almost as much as the second outdoes the first and third. We follow up a lark about a Klan member turned politician, undone by a pack of ravenous voodoo dolls, with a gang fight in which one of the shooters, Crazy K, is wounded, jailed, and eventually admitted to a strange rehabilitation program. After a tense conversation with a white supremacist who points out that both of them are in prison for murdering black men (“you’re all right with me, brother”), K is taken to a nightmarish lab where he’s strapped to a metal rack, with tubes in his nose and various electrodes fixed to his mostly naked body. The setup led me to expect some kind of Frankenstein scenario where he’d be transformed via lightning and chemicals into some instrument of state revenge, but instead it’s more of a Clockwork Orange deal where he is (and we are) forced to watch a montage of masked gang members and shootings intercut with photographs of Klan rallies and lynchings. The lynching photographs are enough horror to carry the whole film, but the juxtaposition, showing us two subcultures dedicated (either by creed or by modus operandi) to murdering young black men, becomes inescapable and inexpressibly sad. The next step in the process confronts K with the walking, talking corpses of those he’s killed, including a young girl shot through a wall by a stray bullet, and when even this is not enough to change his mind about the life he’s chosen, we see the consequences of his refusal to rehabilitate. It’s powerful enough that I got the impression most of the foregoing derivative ghoulishness was a means of seducing the viewer to this point, where the horror is suddenly as immediate and profound as it gets.

Could this last part work independently of the rest? I’m guessing not; on its own, it would seem preachy, but presented as parallel to the other three horror vignettes it seems especially authoritative. And it helps that it ties into the framing story, whose ending would seem especially campy and throwaway otherwise. So it’s a strange, lopsided film, in which every single white person who speaks is a complete reprobate (and why not, really), but far from a waste of time.

An American Werewolf in London

I may have to change these to “movies of the week,” since Sundays are shaping up to be busier than expected. I got this one out of the way early just in case.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it quite as much as I’d hoped to. Like The Wolf Man, which this film explicitly referenced, it seemed only half baked, presenting us a rich metaphor that was only allowed to work at one level. Not that every movie has to have a subtext, particularly a horror movie, but with one so close at hand it seemed a waste.

Here, as there, the movie teases us with the possibility that the transformations are all in the victim’s mind; that he is not in fact a werewolf but a man who has psychotic breaks he can’t remember afterward. True, we witness the transformation, and we see the wolf (in momentary flashes which are still not brief enough to make the monster convincing), but then we also see several dreams of David’s which seem unambiguously unreal, so seeing isn’t meant to be believing. Twice witnesses to the killing claim to be seeing a “lunatic” or a “hooligan,” and while people are reduced to abject terror by seeing David later on, one could just imagine a blood-spattered naked grinning psychopath eliciting nearly the same reaction. No one who has examined David’s wounds or those of his victims see any evidence that suggests an animal might have caused them, and the verdict of a human murderer goes unquestioned. Dr. Hirsch’s account of events, positioned as the reasonable but incorrect “scientific” hypothesis, might then be the one we’re supposed to believe: it’s a contagious “neurosis,” passed from the credulous patrons of the Slaughtered Lamb to the impressionable American tourist, such that, perhaps wracked by survivor’s guilt (exacerbated by the fact that he runs in terror rather than helping his friend when they are attacked), he comes to believe that he is truly a monster, and becomes one.

And yet the story does so effective a job of splitting David into good and evil that this theme never grows any teeth. Like his predecessor Larry Talbot, David is a positive lamb anytime he isn’t an apparent wolf: funny, charming, innocent, kind, even-tempered. Like Talbot, he has his eye on a girl, but like Talbot, he wins her honestly, and suffers no unrequited desire that might be thought to bring out the monster in him. The werewolf is a potent symbol of repressed ferocity and brutalism, but what has David repressed? He has frightening nightmares, but only after he’s bitten (infecting him with brutalism, not inflaming something inherent), and his friend Jack never accuses David of cowardice, only acquired lycanthropy. So we’re left with a movie that seems to be exactly what it appears to be: a story of an unfortunate boy, driven by some sudden mysterious compulsion to commit brutal murders, and eventually killed by the police. Not tragedy, but simple pathos.

Still, though the acting and direction are a little stiff, and though it’s not as funny as it’s trying to be, the film is good-natured enough, and there are a few really memorable scenes. One is, of course, the famous transformation, where David snaps from reading calmly into instant and immediate agony, clutching his head, screaming, and ripping his clothes off. We’ve been waiting an hour for it, and just when we think it’s not coming, it blindsides us and David, and it’s hard not to feel as much sympathy for him as for his victims. Another is the Muppet Show dream, where David sees an idyllic evening at home ripped to shreds by monsters in fascist uniforms. It’s one of the few effectively rendered nightmares I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it’s probably this one’s scariest moment.

The ending is surprisingly abrupt. We’re set up to expect that the werewolf must be killed by someone he loves, but I wasn’t sure if Alex had actually baited him out of the shadows by calling to him, or if she’d just failed to reach the man inside the monster. That’s because the version I saw on Amazon Instant Video (the only one I had access to) was so murky that all the movie’s darker scenes were almost completely illegible.

Near Dark

It wasn’t anywhere near dark when I watched this, but mid-afternoon, sandwiched between a sad (if temporary) farewell to the woman I love and a bleak, apocalyptic evening of the board game Mountains of Madness. The former was more moving than Near Dark, and the latter more scary, but I still found plenty to admire in this late-80s vampire sleeper.

At first it seemed so bare-bones, so by-the-book as vampire stories go, that I considered ejecting it and going with something else. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because early on our hero, a young Oklahoma pretty boy named Caleb, has just been vampirized and is wracked with blood hunger, and he is accosted by a plainclothes cop for looking like a vagrant and spitting out a candy bar into a trash can. “What are you on?” says the cop, and while Caleb cracks wise back (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you”), it sounded like the key to the whole movie for me. I don’t know why I’ve never spent much time thinking about the connection between vampire stories and the kinds of stories Hollywood tells about drug abuse, but it’s blindingly obvious now. This movie never says the word “vampire” that I recall, and you have to change very little about it to alter it from a story about a kid who gets accidentally hooked on blood and hangs out with a bunch of bloodsuckers who want him to join them in killing innocent people to a story about a kid who gets accidentally hooked on (insert whatever you like: smack? PCP? meth?) and hangs out with a bunch of psychos who want him to join them in killing innocent people. There are even two rehab scenes, which I don’t recall ever seeing in any vampire story before, where vampires are “cured” of their blood addiction (and other supernatural strengths and vulnerabilities) through transfusions.

Taken in this light, the spartan nature of the story makes more sense; it’s everything common to the overlap between these two readings, and very little else. Lots of elements which at the time weren’t especially common to vampire stories contribute to this, including the rural setting invaded by the disreputable transients; the trashy, unglamorous nature of the vampires; and the frequent scenes of vampires feeding one another their blood. When Alan Ball and company set out to adapt the Sookie Stackhouse novels about families of vampires in the Bible Belt, they must have watched this movie a few times. In addition to the blood-sharing, we get such familiar True Blood-isms as vampires blackening and blistering in the sunlight (rather than disintegrating immediately), exploding when killed, dating themselves back to the Civil War, and of course taking pleasure in terrorizing rednecks before killing them. The spectacle of Caleb running through daylight under a blanket also put me in mind of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems strange, given how influential it seems to have been, that it took me so long to see this, but I’m glad I finally have.

The performances are generally quite good, apart from a child actor who’s just adequate, with Aliens alumni Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jeanette Goldstein being especially magnetic as the deadliest members of the vamp clan. The dreamlike quality of the romance between Caleb and Mae saves their somewhat awkward scenes from seeming too wooden. Apart from a couple of rather unlikely coincidences toward the end, I felt the whole thing was thoroughly worthwhile.


This is the second Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen. I was much more impressed by this than I was by Sleeper. The shots were so unusual and well-composed — characters speaking out of frame, or seamlessly taking focus at exactly the right time — that I rewound and watched some of them twice. The direction was fantastic, and the performances spot-on. Streep was luminous, Keaton virtuosic, Hemingway pitch-perfect. I don’t know at this point how typical it is for Allen to mix old-time movie musical sentiment with modern relationship dramedy and almost Shakespearean romantic farce, but all three were essential and fit together like gears in a watch.

The reason I can’t love the movie is that the characters all drove me nuts. It’s fine for fictional characters to behave in foolish, obnoxious, morally dubious ways — that’s where stories come from, and anyway they’re “people, human beings” — but there’s something about how these people behave that I just couldn’t warm to. Perhaps it was watching these women improbably or at least ill-advisedly throw themselves at Isaac (Allen), a bit like watching awkward but elegant does being run down by the inattentive driver of a Ford Pinto. Perhaps it was the late 70s talk of “affairs,” and the way everyone was so adult about it, which was somehow both better and worse. Perhaps it was the rapid-fire intellectual passport-stamping, which is supposed to be and is obnoxious. Perhaps it’s just Allen himself, who is great behind the camera but infinitely punchable in front of it.

All I know is that these are the sorts of people who make me glad I don’t spend more time with people. That probably doesn’t make me a likely potential Woody Allen fan. That’s fine.

Those of you who mainly think of Soon-Yi when you think of Woody might be entertained by knowing that his character begins and ends the film dating a teenager (17 going on 18). She’s sweet, open-hearted, loving, not stupid or especially naive, more mature than many of the adults, probably the most sympathetic character in the film (except that, you know, she’s in love with a 42-year-old man with the face, neuroses, and frankly often limp jokes of Woody Allen). It’s not hard to speculate that part of the reason he fell in love with a much younger woman was that she was too inexperienced to recognize that he was full of grade-A, finely directed, beautifully naturally acted bullshit.

The Invisible Man / The Wolf Man

I missed Sunday Movie Night last week, so I did a double feature tonight: back to the black and white era for two classic monster movies in which the monsters are people.

The Invisible Man
This is of course the Claude Rains version from the 30s, directed by James Whale (who also directed Frankenstein). It starts abruptly and more frighteningly than I expected; Rains looks really creepy in the surgical bandages and goggles, stalking into an inn and demanding a room. He looks even creepier later when he finally takes them off; without his false nose and goggles he looks like a skull. The invisibility effects — both his absent limbs and all the action with objects flying about apparently by themselves — are actually pretty good and almost all of them work at least as well as they have to.

I didn’t know anything about the plot coming in, and I was surprised at how villainous Jack Griffin (the title character) gets, and how quickly. Supposedly the key chemical in his formula has psychosis-inducing side-effects, but the way he talks about the power of an invisible man to spy, steal, kill, and hold the world to ransom is quite rational, just sociopathic in the extreme. I wasn’t sure I bought that the other lab assistant, a pretty burly fellow who had no hesitation in moving in on Griffin’s girl as soon as he disappeared, would be such a coward when confronted by the invisible Rains (who’s not that big a guy, or doesn’t look it on screen, even when you can see him). But every supervillain needs a henchman. It’s strange to think that this film predated the first appearance of the Joker (another villain created, mind and body, by a bleaching chemical) by only seven years. I also found myself thinking of Fantomas, who predates this film but came after the H.G. Wells novel, but the various schemes the police come up with to catch Griffin reminded me of nothing so much as the elaborate set pieces in the Nolan Batman films.

I love that so much thought went into how to detect and snare the invisible man — perhaps it comes straight from the novel, but it’s here too, the discussion of how he can’t go out after he’s eaten because the food is visible in his stomach until he’s digested it. Then there are all the weather conditions that will expose him, like rain, snow, and even smog. This isn’t a concept that originally held a lot of interest for me, but after seeing the film, I’m fascinated. I’m not sure I can give a higher recommendation than that.

The Wolf Man
Maybe it was the pizza I’d eaten during The Invisible Man, or maybe it was the cats sleeping on me while I tried to sit through this second feature, but I kept nearly dozing off. I haven’t watched too many werewolf movies, but I always imagined they were largely about the “money shots”: the transformation from man to wolf, the killings, the eventual silver bullet to the heart. Perhaps that’s what the others are like, perhaps not, but in this one it seems to be largely about inner conflict, the duality of good and evil within every man (person? I don’t remember how specific they get about gender). We never see Chaney transform into a wolfman, except for a dissolve shot where his legs get hairier and turn into paws, and we only see him transform back once, when he’s dead (just like the Invisible Man, actually).

The story just seems a little fuzzy to me. Presumably we’re supposed to read the werewolf transformations as Larry Talbot succumbing to the evil side of his nature, but apart from a really creepy stalkerish sequence where he checks out a girl in her bedroom with a telescope (by accident, but still) and then goes to flirt with her in the shop where she works, it’s not clear what that side of him is all about. The first person he kills is apparently the patient zero wolf, played by Bela Lugosi, and from what we see Talbot actually thinks he’s killing a wolf who has attacked and killed a girl. He then sustains a bite from the wolf, but the next morning he’s healed. Are we supposed to wonder if what “really” happened was that Bela was there helping save the girl and Talbot hit him instead? Or that Talbot actually killed them both? Because if we take it at face value, and believe what both Talbot and the old gypsy woman believe — that Bela was a werewolf and what we saw was true — is that really an evil act, to try to save a girl from a wolf?

And then there’s Talbot’s first and only real murder, where he goes out as a wolfman (why is he a wolfman while Bela was full wolf? and while we’re on the subject, why does he wolf out while wearing a tanktop but next appear in a workshirt buttoned all the way to the top? are wolfman hands that dextrous, and wolfman fashion that modest?) and kills…not his romantic rival, the gamekeeper, and not the detective trying to solve Bela’s murder, but a gravedigger he’s never met. Does this mean he’s got a taste for blood and has become a sort of remorseful, self-conscious serial killer, picking off anyone he runs into? Wouldn’t it have supported the theme a lot better for him to kill someone a person’s dark side might actually have targeted?

I dunno. Well, Chaney’s pretty good in this, appearing genuinely tormented in a (non melo-)dramatic way, even though it’s impossible to believe the much shorter and looking-nothing-like-him Claude Rains is his dad. I like the misty forest sets, too, and there are a few really gripping moments, like the one where Talbot can’t bring himself to step into the aisle of the church, and pretty much any scene involving father and son. Overall, I wasn’t in love with it, but it’ll stick with me a lot longer than the film I was expecting would have.

And I’m sure this memorable catchphrase was on everyone’s lips in 1941: “Take a note, Twiddle!”