The Wolf Man (1941)

THE WOLF MAN (1941)


    Notes: UniversalPictures
    Larry Talbot: Lon Chaney, Jr.
    Gwen Conliffe: Evelyn Ankers
    Sir John Talbot: Claude Rains
    Maleva: Maria Ouspenskaya
    Bela: Bela Lugosi
    Doctor Lloyd: Warren William
    Colonel Paul Montford: Ralph Bellamy
    Frank Andrews: Patric Knowles
    Jenny Williams: Fay Helm

    Screenplay: Curt Siodmak
    Produced and Directed: George Waggner


Summary: A book opens to a definition of Lycanthropy which includes a referenceto Talbot Castle. Larry Talbot returns to his father’s estatein Wales. No mention is made of a mother, and older brother JohnJr. recently died in a hunting accident. Sir John presumes Larryleft 18 years ago because of resentment over favoritism, althoughLarry doesn’t confirm this.

Sir John is modest about his award for “research”and has Larry–a hands-on man, not a theorician–tinker with hisnew telescope. With a touch of the “wolf,” he spieson a young woman in an antique shop and into her room above thestore. He visits this shop, smirks about knowing of her earringsin her room, turns down a cane with a little dog handle and insteadpurchases one with a wolf’s head and star, or pentagram. GwenConliffe, the young woman and daughter of the shop owner (again,no mother is in the picture), says that the symbolism involveswerewolves: “Even the man who’s pure of heart and says hisprayers at night / May become a wolf when the wolfbane bloomsand the autumn moon is bright.” She also reports that thewerewolf can see the pentagram on the hand of his next victim. Larry wants to stroll with Gwen that evening; she says no, buthe smirks and says he’ll be by.

Larry buttonholes Gwen, but she has asked herfriend Jenny to accompany her, so all three go to the gypsy fair. Jenny prepares to have her fortune told by Bela, wondering whenshe’ll be married, but his horror makes her ask, “What doyou see? Something evil?” [Yes. Marriage and perpetualstupidity, you breeder.] He has seen the pentagram on her hand. Bela transforms (into a German shepherd) and kills Jenny later. Larry attacks and beats the animal to death with his cane, butis also bitten.

The ubiquitous pile of pompous men discovera barefoot Bela where a wolf should be, and Larry’s wound hasdisappeared. Larry later witnesses the pagan prayer Maleva recitesover her son’s coffin: “The way you walked was thorny, throughno fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil, the riverenters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your sufferingis over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace.”

Jenny’s mother and other old biddies bitchto Charles Conliffe about Gwen’s responsibility in not guardingJenny, implying Gwen is slutty. Larry visits Gwen, but her fianc√©Frank Andrews, the Talbots’ gamekeeper, also visits with his dog. When Larry leaves, Frank says, “couldn’t take my eyes awayfrom that walking stick of his. Be careful, Gwen.” Later,at the gypsy fair, Frank invites Larry: “Let’s have fun. Two guns, please.” At a shooting gallery, Larry freakswhen faced with a wolf target. Maleva gives Larry a pentagrampendant, “the sign of the wolf.” Larry then stupidlygives this to Gwen to protect her.

At home Larry takes off his shoes and shirtand we see the transformation of his feet. Outside he is dresseddifferently and kills Richardson the gravedigger. The next morninghe wipes up muddy tracks in his room and on his sill. Enteringchurch he and Sir John (in a dark hat) encounter Gwen and herfather (in a white hat), and Larry can’t remain for service. The Doctor tells Sir John that Larry’s distress is a case of masshysteria, mind over body, like stigmata. Colonel Montford andAndrews set traps for the wolf.

Larry as wolfman is trapped, but Maleva comesby on her buckboard and releases him, saying, “The way youwalk is thorny. . . . Find peace for a moment, my son.” Back to being human, Larry warns Gwen that he must run away. She announces to her father, “I’m going with Larry,”and Charles is horror-stricken. Larry then sees the pentagramon her hand and flees.

Sir John wants Larry out of his “mentalquagmire” and deduces that Maleva the gypsy has been involved:”she’s been filling you mind with this gibberish. . . . You’re not a child!” Dad is to lock Larry up this nightand takes Larry’s silver cane. We get an electric scene betweena cool Maleva on her buckboard and a nervous Sir John. “You’renot frightened, are you, Sir John?” He accuses her of telling”witch’s tales” to Larry. “But you fixed him,Sir John. . . . Hurry, Sir John, hurry.” Maleva tries tosave Gwen, but she runs into the woods. The wolfman attacks Gwen,but drops her when he sees Sir John approaching and attacks himinstead. Daddy bludgeons his son to death with the stick.

The wolfman transforms back into Larry in death. Sir John backs away in horror while Maleva approaches. “Theway you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. Butas the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tearsrun to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now you willfind peace for eternity.” A story circulates that the wolfattacked Gwen and Larry came to the rescue, but Sir John is aware,and Gwen says “Larry” ambiguously.


Commentary: James B. Twitchell’s psychoanalytic reading of this film in DreadfulPleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (NY: Oxford UniversityPress, 1985) “transforms” one’s enjoyment of TheWolf Man. He traces in this and other films encoded familydynamics and incest taboos. In this case, the Talbot “family”consists of father and son, and has lost mother and brother. Maleva and Bela (mother and son) supply and function in theseroles and all the parallels (and the weirdness between Sir Johnand the gypsy), suggest displaced symbolic relationships. Gwenlives with her father and no mention of a mother arises. Thetwo fathers function as doubles. So symbolically, Larry seeksa relationship with his “sister” (who has no interestin him and is engaged to the gamekeeper). This is the buriedtaboo behind this monstrous transformation.

The saturation of the film with subtle dogreferences and appearances also is gratifying. Larry is called”Master Talbot”: “Master” is an interestingterm in light of dog training; and Talbot was a generic and typicalname for a dog in medieval England, like Rover or Spot.


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