Saturday, April 25, 1970: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey’s cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey’s fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb’s last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin’s visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family’s coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother’s work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners’s dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug — knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane….

Comments: The first — and best — of the Invisible Man sequels, The Invisible Man Returns uses the primary side effect of Jack Griffin’s formula as an effective plot device.

That side effect, you’ll remember from the first film, is a slow descent into madness. From Radcliffe’s earliest scenes, where he is driven to distraction by a barking dog, we are forced to wonder if he is already suffering from drug-induced dementia or simply reacting to the stress of his dangerous plight. The creeping effects of the drug also complicate Radcliffe’s goal of clearing his name, supplanting it with a darker impulse for revenge and destruction.

On top of this, Frank’s effort to find an antidote for the formula before Radcliffe loses his mind completely adds a real sense of urgency. So what we end up with here is a good deal of dramatic tension throughout, with a minimum of the invisible monkeyshines and tomfoolery that wound up in the later entries of this franchise.

The movie benefits from an unusually strong cast for a B-picture. Playing the role of Radcliffe is a young Vincent Price, who clearly has not yet found his own signature style as an actor. He does well enough in this less-than-demanding part, but he is still aping the style of other leading men of the time.

Of course, as an invisible man most of his performance is in his voice, and while Price excels at conveying disembodied mirth and grim humor, he is less effective in the scenes that require him to show the growing paranoia and hostility caused by the invisibility drug.

We saw Nan Gray on Horror Incorporated back on April 4, as Lili in Dracula’s Daughter. Gray was effective in her brief but kinky-for-1936 hypnotic seduction scene. We get to see a more sustained effort from her here, and she is quite impressive, enough so to make me sorry that she didn’t have more of a career. Unlike many actresses of the time (I’m looking at you, Gloria Stuart!) you can see something going on behind her eyes at every moment — stylistically different from the stage actresses who made the jump to film, Gray is delivering a subtle, nuanced performance.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke is a reassuring presence as Richard Cobb, adding some gravitas — and an authentic British accent — to scenes that really need it. Alan Napier, who played the snooty art critic in House of Horrors, is splendid as the puffed-up mine employee Willy Spears.

Cecil Kellaway is simply delightful as Inspector Sampson; for once we get a policeman in one of these films who isn’t a complete dunderhead. Finally, John Sutton is perfectly acceptable as Frank Griffin. Interestingly, Sutton wasn’t trained as an actor, but stumbled into it while he was consulting for Hollywood productions that were set in the British Empire. He was promoted early on as an Errol Flynn lookalike, but spent most of his career playing villains and kooks.

The world, of course, is full of villains and kooks, and so are Hollywood scripts. As you might imagine, Sutton had a good long career.

One comment

  1. This first sequel to THE INVISIBLE MAN was so good that the plot, innocent man becoming invisible to clear his name, has been used more frequently than one might think. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN only switched the character to a boxer, while CHILLER THEATER began airing in the mid 70's a mysterious 1958 title, THE NEW INVISIBLE MAN, virtually a straight Mexican remake (original title EL HOMBRE QUE LOGRO SER INVISIBLE). Vincent Price was an excellent choice for the role, which he would repeat for a closing gag in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Cecil Kellaway is a delight, biding his time collecting evidence, but it's Alan Napier, newly arrived in Hollywood, who steals it with an atypical performance as a scruffy supervisor (especially for those only familiar with his work as Alfred the butler on BATMAN). John Sutton would be reunited with Price in 1959's RETURN OF THE FLY.


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