Rains portrayed the Invisible Man (Dr. Jack Griffin) mostly only as a disembodied voice. Rains is only shown clearly for a brief time at the end of the film, spending most of his on-screen time covered by bandages. In 2008, The Invisible Man was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
On a snowy night, a mysterious stranger, his face swathed in bandages and his eyes obscured by dark goggles, takes a room at The Lion's Head Inn in the English village of Iping in Sussex. The man demands that he be left alone. Later, the innkeeper, Mr. Hall (Forrester Harvey) is sent by his wife (Una O'Connor) to evict the stranger after he makes a huge mess in his room while doing research and falls behind on his rent. Angered, the stranger throws Mr. Hall down the stairs. Confronted by a policeman and some local villagers, he removes his bandages and goggles, revealing that he is invisible. Laughing maniacally, he takes off his clothes, making himself completely undetectable, and drives off his tormenters before fleeing into the countryside.
The stranger is Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemist who has discovered the secret of invisibility while conducting a series of tests involving an obscure drug called monocane. Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), Griffin's fiancee and the daughter of Griffin's employer, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), becomes distraught over Griffin's long absence. Cranley and his other assistant, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), search Griffin's empty laboratory, finding only a single note in a cupboard. Cranley becomes concerned when he reads it. On a list of chemicals is monocane, which Cranley knows is extremely dangerous; an injection of it drove a dog mad in Germany. Griffin, it seems, is unaware of this, having learned about monocane in English books printed before the incident.
On the evening of his escape from the inn, Griffin turns up at Kemp's home. He forces Kemp to become his visible partner in a plot to dominate the world through a reign of terror, commencing with "a few murders here and there". They drive back to the inn to retrieve his notebooks on the invisibility process. Sneaking inside, Griffin finds a police inquiry under way, conducted by an official who believes it is all a hoax. After securing his books, he attacks and kills the officer.
Back home, Kemp calls first Cranley, asking for help, and then the police. Flora persuades her father to let her come along. In her presence, Griffin becomes more placid and calls her "darling." When he realizes Kemp has betrayed him, his first reaction is to get Flora away from danger. After promising Kemp that at 10 o'clock the next night he will murder him, Griffin escapes and goes on a killing spree. He causes the derailment of a train, resulting in a hundred deaths, and throws two volunteer searchers off a cliff. The police offer a reward for anyone who can think of a way to catch the Invisible Man.
The chief detective (Dudley Digges) in charge of the search uses Kemp as bait, feeling Griffin will try to fulfill his promise, and devises various clever traps. At Kemp's insistence, the police disguise him in a police uniform and let him drive his car away from his house. Griffin, however, is hiding in the back seat of the car. He overpowers Kemp and ties him up in the front seat. Griffin then sends the car down a steep hill and over a cliff, where it explodes on impact.
Griffin seeks shelter from a snowstorm in a barn. A farmer hears snoring and sees the hay, in which Griffin is sleeping, moving. The man notifies the police. The police surround the building and set fire to the barn. When Griffin comes out, the chief detective sees his footprints in the snow and opens fire, mortally wounding him. Griffin is taken to the hospital where, on his deathbed, he admits to Flora that he had tampered with something that was meant to be left alone. After he dies, his body gradually becomes visible again.Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin / The Invisible Man
Gloria Stuart as Flora Cranley
William Harrigan as Dr. Arthur Kemp
Henry Travers as Dr. Cranley
Una O'Connor as Jenny Hall
Forrester Harvey as Herbert Hall
Dudley Digges as Chief Detective
E. E. Clive as Constable Jaffers
Several notable character actors appear in minor roles, including Dwight Frye as a reporter, Walter Brennan as a man whose bicycle is stolen by Griffin, and John Carradine, acting at that time under the name Peter Richmond, as a Cockney informer.
Claude Rains was not the studio's first choice to play the lead role in The Invisible Man. Boris Karloff was originally supposed to play the part but withdrew after producer Carl Laemmle Jr. tried too many times to cut Karloff's contractual salary. To replace Karloff, Chester Morris, Paul Lukas and Colin Clive were considered for the part. It was James Whale, who was assigned to direct the film to replace Cyril Gardner, who wanted Claude Rains to play Griffin – Rains was his first choice. Problems in developing the script held up the project for some time; in June 1932 the film was called off temporarily.
The Invisible Man was in production from June to August 1933 at Universal Studios. Filming was interrupted near the end by a fire, started by a smudge pot kicked into some hay, which damaged an exterior set.
The film was released on November 13, 1933 and was marketed with the taglines "Catch me if you can!" and "H.G. Wells' Fantastic Sensation".
Although the basic framework of the story and the characters' names are largely the same as in the novel, there are several great differences. The novel takes place in the 1890s, while the film takes place in 1933. In the novel, Griffin (the Invisible Man) remains almost a totally mysterious person, with no fiancee or friends; in the film he is engaged to a beautiful woman and has the support of her father and his associate. In the novel, Griffin is already insane before he makes himself invisible and he is entirely motivated by a lust for power. In the film, Griffin is driven mad by the drug that makes him invisible. Dr. Kemp survives in the novel; his life is saved by those who ultimately kill Griffin. In the film, Dr. Kemp is terrified throughout, and pays with his life for betraying Griffin.
The film is known for its clever and groundbreaking visual effects by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, whose work is often credited for the success of the film. When the Invisible Man had no clothes on, the effect was achieved through the use of wires, but when he had some of his clothes on or was taking his clothes off, the effect was achieved by shooting Claude Rains in a completely black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining this shot with another shot of the location the scene took place in using a matte process. Claude Rains was claustrophobic and it was hard to breathe through the suit. Consequently, the work was especially difficult for him, and a double, who was somewhat shorter than Rains, was sometimes used.
The effect of Rains seeming to disappear was created by making a head and body cast of the actor, from which a mask was made. The mask was then photographed against a specially prepared background, and the film was treated in the laboratory to complete the effect.
The movie was popular at the box office, Universal's most successful horror film since Frankenstein.
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, "The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement." The film also appeared on the New York Times' year-end list as one of the Ten Best Films of 1933. Variety called the film "something new and refreshing in film frighteners" that "will more than satisfy audiences," but suggested that some of the laughs in the picture might not have been intentional.
Film Daily wrote, "It will satisfy all those who like the bizarre and the outlandish in their film entertainment." John Mosher of The New Yorker called the film a "bright little oddity" that "never was properly appreciated."
Despite the critical acclaim, H. G. Wells, the author of the book the film was based on, said at a dinner in its honor that "while he liked the picture he had one grave fault to find with it. It had taken his brilliant scientist and changed him into a lunatic, a liberty he could not condone." Whale replied that the film was addressed to the "rationally minded motion picture audience," because "in the minds of rational people only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway." (In the original novel, the scientist was amoral from the start and did not hesitate to rob his own father [who consequently commits suicide] to get the money to buy certain drugs, etc., for the invisibility process. In the movie, an essential color-removing drug in the process had the unavoidable side-effect of unbalancing his mind.) Despite his misgivings, Wells did praise the performance of Una O'Connor as the shrieking Mrs. Hall.
Whale, who had previously directed Frankenstein as well as the first version of Waterloo Bridge, received a Special Recommendation from the 1934 Venice Film Festival in recognition of his work on The Invisible Man. Rains' film career took off after The Invisible Man, which was his first American film appearance. The film was nominated for the American Film Institute's AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills and AFI's 10 Top 10 (science fiction film), while the character was nominated as a villain for the AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains list.
Due to the success of the first film, a sequel title The Invisible Man Returns was later released in 1940 starring different actors and following different characters. The film stars Vincent Price as a new Invisible Man, while John Sutton plays the brother of Claude Rains's character from The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man was released on VHS as part of the Universal Studios' Classic Monster Collection in 1992. In 2004 Universal released six legacy collections that included some of their best horror films. The Invisible Man was uncut and longer than previously televised versions. The complete "Invisible Man" collection comprised The Invisible Man (1933), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942) and The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944), as well as bonus features, including Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, a detailed look at the making of the classic horror film and its sequels by film historian Rudy Behlmer.
In February 2016, it was announced that Johnny Depp will star in the reboot with Ed Solomon writing the film's script, while Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan will be the producers. The film will be a part of Universal Pictures' modern-day reboot of Universal Monsters, called Dark Universe. The series of films will begin with The Mummy (2017), followed by Bride of Frankenstein in 2019. Franchise producer Alex Kurtzman stated that fans should expect at least one film per year in the shared film universe.