Thursday 11 January 2024

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writers: Lester Cole and Kurt Siodmak, from a story by Joe May and Kurt Siodmak, a sequel to The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Stars: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway and John Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

I thought I’d seen all the original Universal horror movies, but this may be an exception. It’s also a lot better than I expected it to be, in most part due to an intelligent script by Curt Siodmak, going by Kurt here. He had written a number of scripts back in Germany, including Menschen am Sonntag, but would become more known for his horror movies, such as The Wolf Man, I Walked with a Zombie and Donovan’s Brain, the latter of which was based on his novel.

For a start, he didn’t let us see the Invisible Man too quickly. And yes, that’s a pun. It’s not the only one you’ll read because the picture is full of them. But we hear much about Geoffrey Radcliffe before he shows up.

Initially, he’s on death row, two hours away from being executed for murder. He’s visited by Dr. Frank Griffin, brother to Claude Rains’s character in The Invisible Man, here named as John Griffin. And, when the officials come for him, he’s gone. There were two guards in the room and Geoffrey talked with them after the doctor had left. Then he walked round the cell and disappeared. His clothes are right there on the floor.

Of course, we know what happened, so we’ll not be shocked when we see the effects of an invisible man walking into the woods to dress from a deliberately placed suitcase. We know his presence by now.

Crucially, though, we’re not alone. Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard also knows exactly what happened, because he has John Griffin’s file. He knows about the invisibility serum, its effects and the fact that it sent the man mad. Surely, he thinks, in nine years (even though the original film came seven years earlier), his brother must have perfected it and addressed the insanity aspect. And, critically, he knows even at this point that Geoffrey will become visible in smoke or rain.

Nobody else has a clue, so they’ll just shoot him on sight. Ha! See what I mean about puns?

Geoffrey shows up in the form we expect at the sixteen and a half minute mark, wrapped in bandages and wearing heavy glasses. That’s Vincent Price’s memorable voice though. He’s not much to look at anyway, he tells Helen.

And here I’ll introduce you to the cast with whom we’ve spent quite some time already. A bunch are immediately recognisable from the few films Price had done already, so narrowly did Universal cast at this point.

Nan Grey, who had played Lady Alice Barton in Tower of London is Helen Manson, Geoffrey’s fiancée. She’s even lovelier here, even if she’s given a little less to do. She’d be back for The House of the Seven Gables later in 1940.

John Sutton, her wannabe fiancée in Tower of London, John Wyatt, and also Capt. Armand in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, is back again as Dr. Frank Griffin. He’s a crucial part of this story, but he underplays it where he could be accused of overdoing it last time out.

There are two prominent new faces. There’s Cecil Kellaway, who would also be back for The House of the Seven Gables, as Insp. Sampson. He’s a gem here: very knowledgeable, very patient and very careful. There’s Sir Cedric Hardwicke too, as the other guy, so making the eventual revelation of the villain moot, given that he’s the only viable possibility. He’s Richard Cobb and he’s very attentive to young Helen.

Price handles this role well, confident that, even this early in his career, his fans will know who he is from his voice, so he resists pulling a Stallone by showing his face, at least until the very end of the film when it’s appropriate.

Of course, we recognise his voice too, but he doesn’t seem to have quite as much relish in delivery as he would come to have. Except he does as the film builds. An hour in when he’s arguing with Griffin, there’s all the relish. It’s a solid indicator of how insane he’s getting.

And he worries about this, even as it comes to pass. Griffin’s brother went famously mad when he was an invisible man and Geoffrey doesn’t want to follow suit. He even has Griffin swear that he will stop him if he starts to show signs of madness, not that he accepts it when it happens, of course.

All this helps make him a very sympathetic character, as indeed does the belief of most of those who work at his colliery that he wasn’t guilty of the crime of which he was accused. The only notable exception is Alan Napier as Willie Spears, a lazy night watchman.

Of course, you want to know about special effects. They were pioneering in The Invisible Man in 1933, but they’re better still here, as of course they should have been. John P. Fulton earned an Academy Award nomination, which oddly included his colleagues for sound, as did the thirteen other nominees. They all lost to Lawrence W. Butler for The Thief of Bagdad (and its sound guys).

We don’t just see the effects with Geoffrey—yes, of course, there’s a scene in which he has to take off his clothes, at which Helen faints— because the filmmakers were confident in the work Fulton was doing. Griffin has a number of invisible guinea pigs; when he injects one, it comes back to visibility, skeletal system first, but then dies. There’s an excellent scene with Griffin injecting the invisible Geoffrey. There’s another when Sampson raids where Geoffrey is staying; it’s raining and he his men are in gas masks spraying fog, each approach making him just visible enough for these men to shoot at an outline.

After Price, Kellaway and the special effects, it’s always the script that shines brightest. There are puns—“I’ll have to see him before I believe he’s invisible!” The potential madness angle is handled with style. Insp. Sampson’s grounded belief in what the invisible man can do is even better.

And then there’s a vicious conundrum late in the film. Geoffrey has been shot. He’s alive but he’s bleeding internally and there are men volunteering their blood for a transfusion. Dr. Griffin has all the skill to operate, but he can’t because he can’t see his patient. The only way he can save his life is by attempting the latest iteration of his antidote but it’s likely to either kill him or send him raving mad. That’s tough!

I won’t spoil how it plays out, but it’s fair to say that we eventually get to see Price, who’s spent the entire picture without a moustache. And we never even noticed!

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