Sometimes it happens that an intelligent script is turned into a movie by a rank incompetent and the result as a consequence falls short of the scenarist’s substantial intent. Such is the case with The Wolf Man, which Curt Siodmak wrote and George Waggner directed. Siodmak, Robert’s younger brother, was a novelist and a scholar (Ph.D., mathematics). Waggner ended up directing series television, for instance, 77 Sunset Strip and Batman.
The film is, of course, a beloved classic. The mainspring of the plot is this: Upon his return to his ancestral home in Wales following his brother’s death in the U.S., Larry Talbot is bitten by a werewolf and, as a result, turns into one himself—at night, when there’s a full moon. To protect Gwen he has already killed one werewolf; now he must protect her against himself.
Waggner has given the whole an unconvincing, now somewhat campy form; but real ideas struggle to emerge and resonate. Talbot’s return to Europe reflects on Siodmak’s partially reverse flight from Germany to England and, from there, to the U.S. Siodmak was responding to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, whose hatred of Jews urged his (and Robert’s) flight. Larry Talbot’s tormenting anxiety reflects the potential for monstrous evil in humanity, which Siodmak understandably identifies with Nazism, that Talbot wants not to inflict on other humans. But this idea of social commitment, to engage the world in a positive way even if suppressing the evil that lurks in us requires the ultimate self-sacrifice, is indistinct in the breezily superficial thing that Waggner has mindlessly wrought.
Talbot’s father pooh-poohs Larry’s conviction that he, Larry, is a werewolf. Sir John is underestimating a dangerous world.
Lon Chaney Jr., who plays Talbot, would play him again in four more films.
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