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Film / The Wolf Man (1941)

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"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."

The Wolf Man is a 1941 Universal Horror film directed by George Waggner, written by Curt Siodmak, and starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi. Universal's second werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by the much less commercially successful Werewolf of London, it's had a great deal of influence on Hollywood's depictions of that particular legend.

Lawrence "Larry" Talbot (Chaney) is about to have a really bad night — a whole bunch of them, in fact. Larry has recently returned to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales, to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Rains). While there, he meets and starts pursuing shopkeeper Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) after she sells him a walking stick adorned with a silver wolf's head — which, she says, represents a werewolf. In the course of trying to rescue Gwen's friend Jenny from an apparent wolf attack, Larry gets bitten. He soon learns from Roma fortune-teller Maleva (Ouspenskaya) that the wolf in question was actually a werewolf, specifically her son Bela (Lugosi) roaming the countryside in the form of a wolf. It seems that Bela had been a werewolf for years, and has now passed on the curse to Larry.

When the next full moon rises, Larry transforms into a ravening Wolf Man, and prowls the village and its environs, tallying up a victim count of his own. Larry must now grapple with his curse and keep his loved ones safe at all costs.

Chaney's Wolf Man was featured in four further films in the Universal monster cycle:

A remake of the film was released in 2010.

The Wolf Man is part of the large collection of "Universal Horror" films.

This film has the examples of:

  • Alternate Identity Amnesia: Actually one of the Trope Codifiers when it came to werewolves, Lawrence has little-to-no-memory of his wolf rampages.
  • And Starring: LON CHANEY as The Wolf Man.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Larry's "Wouldn't wanna run away with a murderer" speech is an interesting version of this, in that he doesn't actually say much about his feelings, specifically, but the context and his facial expressions make everything perfectly clear.
  • Arc Words: The "even a man who is pure in heart..." poem went to appear throughout in every movie of the series.
  • Beast and Beauty: Larry and Gwen technically qualify as this.
  • The Charmer: Larry
  • Cheerful Funeral: A Christian priest finds it utterly alien that the Romani would mourn the passing of Bela with celebrations and even a whole carnival. The movie implies that they were celebrating the fact that Bela is now freed from being a werewolf. But he has passed the curse on to Lawrence Talbot.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Larry's cane.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: The reason for the existence of Frank Andrews in the film. Universal had used this same trope in Werewolf of London (and indeed in the original cut of Frankenstein as well, in which Henry had been killed).
  • Damsel in Distress: Gwen at the end.
  • Doomed Protagonist: When you've become a monster, in a Universal Horror movie no less, your chances of living until the end are very slim. Which is why The Hero Dies.
  • Downer Ending: Larry in wolf form is beaten to death by his own father.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: This is far more of a serious horror film than the other four appearances of the Wolfman. It is also the only one to feature Wolfman as the sole monster (not counting the werewolf who passes the curse to Larry), as all of the others are Monster Mashes.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Frank's dog freaks out with the barking when he sees Larry.
  • Fearsome Foot: The camera focuses on Larry Talbot's feet turning into wolf-like footpaws for the duration of a transformation scene. After Larry's feet become fully transformed, the camera continues to close up on then as he prowls out of the room and into the forest.
  • Furry Confusion: Bela's werewolf form appears as a quadrupedal, bestial-appearing wolf, but Larry's appears as a bipedal Wolf Man.
    • A possible reason for this is that the film was originally meant to be a psychological thriller, where you're never quite sure if Larry is really becoming a werewolf or whether it's all in his head. Naturally, this means he would have to be attacked by a creature resembling a true wolf, for if he was attacked by a Wolf Man type monster, there would be no doubt that the werewolves are indeed real.
  • Genre-Busting: It's a B-movie monster horror flick with the overtones of a Film Noir.
  • Gypsy Curse: Averted, and inverted, by Maleva.
  • Hate Sink: After the death of her daughter, Mrs. Williams and friends storm Gwen's home to demand an answer from Gwen as to why her daughter was left alone. When Gwen's father won't permit an audience, Mrs. Williams starts throwing harsh accusations about Gwen being a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing and that she deliberately left Jenny to her fate. Later, she starts spreading rumors that Larry is but a human serial killer, despite that this is blatant slander. This gives the audience someone loathsome to root against, as the titular wolfman is technically the protagonist.
  • Healing Factor: Once cursed, Larry has one. Wounds acquired in one rough night (a serious bite, a wolf-trap injury) are gone in hours.
  • Horror Struck: Larry is initially skeptical to being a werewolf and towards werewolves in general, until, you know, he actually becomes one.
  • Human-to-Werewolf Footprints: After his first time as a werewolf, we see mud footprints of a big wolf from outside the mansion into the high opened window and ending changing into human footprints at Larry's bedroom.
  • Idiot Ball: Picked up by Larry at least twice. He is literally handed a preventative amulet with instructions to wear it, which he gives away to Gwen. Gwen soon offers it to him again, and he turns it down.
  • Immune to Bullets: Maleva says that a werewolf can only be killed by a silver weapon. In the climax, some hunters shot Larry with rifles and shotguns in werewolf form off-screen, without results.
  • Informed Species: Larry's werewolf form, unlike Bela's, doesn't really read as wolf-like to modern audiences. It looks more like a cross between a bear and an ape.
    • Despite looking nothing like one, Larry's wolf-form is often mistaken for an actual wolf, both in this film and the sequels, rather than a man, as we would imagine. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the characters mistaken a wolf mask full with snout and pointed ears with the Wolf Man. This implies that in-universe, Larry transforms into a much more lupine creature than the special effects and censors of the day would allow.
  • Leitmotif: Talbot's werewolf form is always introduced by three short notes.
  • Magic Pants: It's also more like Magic Shirts.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The entire movie was originally supposed to be this, with us never finding out if Larry is simply delusional and imagining he transforms into a wolf, or if he's an actual werewolf. It was this way until a few weeks before shooting, when it was decided it should be a straight up monster flick.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Subverted by Bela's mother Maleva ("mal" and "evil"!), who is one of the more helpful characters in the film.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Larry's only in this mess because he saw Jenny being attacked by what he thought was a normal wolf and went to help her.
  • The Nose Knows: This is how Larry is his werewolf form finds his first victim. It's implied that this is also how Werewolf! Bela found Jenny in the dark forest, and how Wolf Man! Larry found and ambush Gwen.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: This movie may be set in Wales, but no one speaks with a Welsh accent. Perhaps the most glaring examples are Ralph Bellamy's Colonel Mountford and Warren Williams' Dr. Lloyd, both clearly Americans — but even the British cast members are all clearly either English or Irish. Larry is at least justified in that he spent most of his life in America, but everyone else isn't as justified.
  • Ominous Fog: The forest where the wolf man likes to go on the prowl is perpetually fogbound.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: In addition to introducing the Wolf Man variant to popular culture, this movie also introduced the silver vulnerability to the mythos, and being marked with a pentagram. Contrary to popular belief, it didn't introduce forced shape-shifting under the full moon, which instead first showed up in the previous film Werewolf of London, and was used again in this film's sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Maleva outlives her son Bela, Jenny's mother outlives her daughter (and is angry and accusatory about it), and Sir John in the end outlives both his sons.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: This takes the form in Salter and Skinner's score of a single violin over Maleva's reciting of the Romani valediction, "The way you walked was thorny..."
  • Romani: Maria Ouspenskaya's old fortune teller, Maleva.
    • And to a lesser extent, Bela Lugosi's role as her son.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Larry.
  • Silver Has Mystic Powers: The association with a werewolf and silver largely originates with this movie.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Larry comes off as this initially, although it becomes less stalker-ish as the movie goes on. Indeed, Gwen is initially perturbed by his attentions, as she's already engaged to another man and is understandably discomfited at the thought of Larry being able to peer into her window. In fact, for most of the film she seems to clearly be struggling to not be attracted to him, making her a very unusual case of a "love interest" in a film like this.
  • Supernatural Angst
  • This Was His True Form: This causes some problems for Larry; he beat a wolf to death with a cane, and is very confused as to why everyone keeps asking him why he killed a human.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: A squad sets off into the forest to kill the wolf, complete with pitchforks.
  • Tragic Monster: Poor Larry didn't really want to turn into a monster.
  • Transformation Sequence: A focus on Larry's feet as they transform into wolf man feet.
  • Trope Codifier / Trope Maker: For the werewolf movie. Also for popular werewolf fiction in general, as there's no literary equivalent of Dracula for werewolves.
  • Ɯberwald: The setting is nominally 1940s Wales, but with the Romani, black forests, half-timbered cottages, and the old nobility residing in the ancestral castle, Llanwelly is more a sort of British branch of Überwald.
  • Viral Transformation: Being bitten by a werewolf and surviving leads to one becoming a werewolf.
  • Wolf Man: Trope codifier. For decades most of what people thought were werewolf legends was based on tropes from this movie and its sequels.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: One of the main themes of the film. Larry Talbot's ultimate destiny (which gets foreshadowed early on, by his purchase of the silver wolf's-head cane) is sealed beyond hope from the moment he gets bitten.