The Wolf Man
Director: George Waggner. Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Fay Helm, J.M. Kerrigan, Tom Stevenson. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak.

Photo © 1941 Universal Pictures
Lon Chaney, Jr.'s hirsute transformation into the titular lycanthrope, often accomplished via a series of lap dissolves, is probably the least insinuating aspect of this moody and effective chiller, and happily, the film seems to know it. Just as often, director George Waggner cuts straight from the stout, plug-faced Chaney worrying about his mood swings and amnesias to shots of him, fanged and furry, loitering behind trees and scrambling over the knolls on the film's foggy English moor. He's got a tight, mean little growl, and he attacks like he means it, though the silhouette shots of what look, mistakenly or not, like "real" wolves mauling other innocents are just as frightening. For all of that, The Wolf Man's tantamount pleasures are its economy and speed, its silvery manipulations of light and shadow, and the panache with which the lighting, the story, and the rich cast navigate a tone that is so finely balanced between sincerity and hokum that you never quite catch the film exhibiting only one or the other. James Whale aficionados might miss the more pronounced, camp oscillations between the merry and the macabre, but sue me if I prefer Maria Ouspenskaya in ruddy makeup and a "gypsy" do-rag or Ralph Bellamy and Warren William as the local alpha-males, weighed against Chaney's palpable anguish at turning into he knows not what. B+

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