Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mystery, Madness and the Invisible Man


As is only proper with any B-movie worth its salt, The Invisible Man Returns (1940) jumps feet first into the story without wasting any time at all.

Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe is about to hang for the murder of his brother. But Geoffrey’s gal and his best friend are both convinced he’s innocent. And Geoffrey is very fortunate in his best friend---Frank Griffith--is the younger brother of the original invisible man and has recreated the formula to make one invisible.

So, one smuggled hypodermic needle later, Geoffrey escapes. Now all he has to do is find the real killer.

But there’s a couple of factors working against him. First, Robert hasn’t had time to find an antidote yet. And, as we all remember from the first film, the invisibility formula eventually turns you COMPLETELY BUG NUTS!!!

This gives the movie several layers of suspense. Who’s the real killer? Will Geoffrey be restored to visibility? Will he go whacko and become a villain himself?

Can he dodge the cops? Remember, the police in the Universal Horror reality have experience in chasing an invisible man. And the Inspector in charge of the investigation soon proves to be a smart and capable man.

All this adds up to 81 minutes of fun. First, the script (co-written by Curt Siodmak—Universal’s go-to guy for good monster stories) is a solid one. The only weakness is that it’s pretty obvious who the real killer very early on. But otherwise, the plot unfolds quickly and logically.

Second, the cast is great. Vincent Price (in his first horror role) does a typically fantastic job as Geoffrey Radcliffe. He starts out as a desperate man who’s frightened of what he might do when the madness begins to overtake him. From there, he smoothly segues into a near-madman raving about how he could rule the world.  Whether he can hold on to his sanity until he can clear his name is a real question.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Remember, this was an era when character actors in supporting roles were always given that minute or two of extra screen time they needed to really shine.  Cecil Kellaway, as Scotland Yard Inspector Sampson, oozes a sense of intelligence and professionalism. It’s Sampson who quickly figures out how Geoffrey escapes. When he goes to Griffith’s lab to question the scientist, he’s smoking a cigar and casually walking about the room blowing puffs of smoke. He knows, you see, that an invisible man would show up as a silhouette in the smoke.

Alan Napier, who a quarter century later would be Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred on the 1960s Batman TV show, oozes slime as a ruthless, dirty thug. The scene in which Geoffrey uses his invisibility to psych out Napier’s character to get information is both funny and effective in terms of advancing the plot. Even a minor bit of business Napier uses adds to his performance—a tendency for his character to wiggle his pinky in his ear every few minutes humanizes him and makes him seem a little more sleezy.

Third, John P. Fulton’s special effects are astonishing, especially when you remember that this was decades before CGI. (In fact, Fulton got an Oscar nomination for his work here.)  There’s a sequence in which Geoffrey is apparently trapped in a house by the cops. It’s raining out, so when he tries to duck out a back door, he shows up like a bubble. The cops then begin spraying the house with smoke, once again causing Geoffrey’s outline to become visible. Each of these shots looks perfect. 

So, with our journey through the original Invisible Man movies now at the halfway point, we find ourselves with another winner. The Invisible Man Returns may not be the classic that the original is, but it’s an entertaining movie—well-crafted on every level. It’s well worth… um… seeing.

By the way, in the previous entry, I had actually forgotten about 1950's Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, which is indeed a part of this series' continuity, so we'll be covering that as well as Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man's Revenge

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