Saturday, October 21, 1972: Svengali (1931) / The Invisible Killer (1939)


Synopsis: The eccentric musician Svengali (John Barrymore) ekes out a living as a music tutor in Paris. He lives a decidedly bohemian lifestyle: he rarely bathes, his clothes are worn and unkempt, and he owes money to just about everyone he knows.

Svengali is acquainted with a group of English artists who live nearby, and it is through them that he first sees the lovely young model Trilby (Marian Marsh).  Like most men he is thoroughly taken with her, drawn to her beauty, innocence and playfulness, but she is in love with an Englishman named Billee (Bramwell Fletcher).

Among Svengali’s talents is a knack for hypnotism, and he offers to help Trilby with her persistent headaches by putting her under his spell and eliminating the pain through the power of suggestion. Before long, the amoral mentalist decides that he can do more than this, and under his power Trilby sends a note to Billee rejecting him, and leading him to believe she has committed suicide.  But in fact she has fled Paris with Svengali, starting a new life not only as his musical protege but as his bride.

Under Svengali’s tutelage, Trilby becomes a famous singer, performing across Europe as Mdme. Svengali.  Svengali himself becomes wealthy and powerful, with the most important figures in the music world begging for a moment of his time.  Yet Svengali is not happy.  In spite of his control over Trilby, he knows that she doesn’t really love him.

Soon enough, Svengali makes a triumphant return to Paris. Billee is astonished to see that Trillby is not only alive, but is Svengali’s wife.  When Trilby sees Billee, she is momentarily ecstatic to see him, and Svengali must struggle to bring her back under his control…

Comments: Watching Svengali again is a bit like watching someone perform a magic trick the second or third time. The first time around, you admire the trick, and only wonder afterward how it was done. On subsequent viewings, you start looking to see how the magician pulled it off.
With Svengali, we understand the title character is evil; yet we feel a good deal of pity for him. It isn’t obvious at first why this should be so. But we come to understand that while the character is amoral — even a monster — when all is said and done, he is thoroughly human.
Our first glimpse of his personality comes through in the film’s opening moments. Svengali plays the piano in his flat, and as he reaches the end of the piece, he turns away from the keyboard slightly, bowing his head and smiling at the imaginary applause that rings in his ears.  He still yearns for the acclaim that has always eluded him.
Immediately after this we have the scene with Mme. Honori. Even though this scene introduces us to Svengali’s hypnotic power, the scene is largely played for laughs; Svengali asks her what they did they last time they were together. “Don’t you remember?” Mme. Honori asks eagerly. “I was speaking about music,” Svengali replies coolly. When Mme. Honori sings, it’s clear that Svengali is fleecing her; she can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
She  then announces that she has left her husband and wants to live with Svengali — but, she adds, she has spurned his offer of a settlement. It’s enough, she tells him, that they will be together.  Svengali can’t believe his ears: there’s no money at all? None, she tells him. Svengali’s reaction is comical: his face tenses up and he turns away, his mind clearly working out how to get rid of her.
And of course he does get rid of her, but in an unusual way: he turns back and stares at her. “Don’t look at me like that!” Mme. Honori cries, and she runs away. The next day we learn that she has drowned herself in the river, and when Svengali hears the news, he seems both unsurprised and unconcerned.
It isn’t until later in the film that we realize that Svengali is responsible for her death, through his gift for mesmerism. But interestingly, it isn’t at all clear that he consciously wills Mme. Honori to commit suicide. He stares at her, yes; but his back is turned to us when he does so, and we don’t see what she sees. Was Svengali aware of the power he had over her? Did he mean to make her jump in the river, or was this incident (like the one with the hold-up man in The Mask of Diijon) simply the first inkling he had of the true potential of his gift?
It is moments like these that allow Svengali to hold the center the of film (this is, in fact, the first film version of George L Du Maurier’s novel to make him at least partially sympathetic; in the novel Trilby he was not only a monster, but as a stereotypical Jewish monster of the era, motivated solely by avarice, devoid of any good qualities or any kind of interior life. It was perhaps the presence of John Barrymore that demanded Svengali be made a more interesting and nuanced character (with the possible exception of Daniel Day-Lewis we don’t really have actors who are as revered as Barrymore in this day and age) and Barrymore does not disappoint, outshining everyone else on the screen. Making monsters so damned likable isn’t easy. But not only does Barrymore pull it off, he makes it look easy. A decade later he would be a wreck, unable to memorize dialogue, stumbling his way through programmers like The Invisible Woman. But how great he was here.
 The Invisible Killer

Synopsis: Fast-talking newspaper reporter Sue Walker (Grace Bradley) always seems to be just one step ahead of her boyfriend, homicide detective Jerry Brown (Roland Drew). Every time he shows up at a crime scene he finds that she’s there ahead of him. This time she beats him to the scene of a gangland killing, an illicit gambling den where a mobbed-up high roller named Jimmy Clark has been murdered, shot while on the telephone. But it is soon revealed that the gunshot wounds didn’t cause his death.

Meanwhile, Sue discovers that Gloria Cunningham, daughter of a prominent anti-gambling crusader, was there at Lefty Ross’ gambling club at the time of Clark’s murder. This is problematic not only because of who she’s related to but who she’s engaged to: no-nonsense D.A. Richard Sutton, who is just embarking on a new effort to crush the underground casino racket in the city. Sutton rounds up the men he knows are operating illicit casinos in the city and instructs them to stop paying protection to the mob and close up shop.

After the conclave Lefty phones Sutton to tell him that he’s ready to spill his guts in exchange for protection. When Sutton replies that he can’t offer immunity from prosecution, Lefty says he’ll take his chances with a jury — what he wants is to live long enough to testify.

Sutton agrees and arranges for Lefty to be brought to his house; Sue bribes the butler into letting her inside. A phone call comes for Lefty.  As soon as Lefty begins talking on the phone he keels over and dies.

Brown disassembles the telephone and discovers that the phone has been tampered with: a capsule of poison gas is hidden in the mouthpiece and can be triggered remotely. But who is  arranging the death of the mobsters?


Comments: As many people know (some of them not even geeks), Detective Comics #27 is one of the most famous and valuable comic books ever published  —  it is, after all, the issue that marked the first appearance of a certain overdressed vigilante called The Batman.



Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s action-packed (though decidedly creaky) story is the one everyone remembers, but there were four or five other tales in that particular issue, including a two-page text story called “Death On the Airwaves”.

“Death On the Airwaves” begins with an epidemic of radio personalities dropping dead right in front of their microphones, in the middle of nationally broadcast variety shows! It’s clear in short order that these deaths are the result of foul play, but no one can figure out how the victims are being killed. In the end it’s revealed that poison gas capsules have been fiendishly hidden inside the microphones, turning live radio broadcasts into — well, dead radio broadcasts.

I don’t remember the details of the story, since I read it so long ago (no, not in 1939, smart-ass; Detective Comics 27 was reprinted by D.C. in the 1970s) but the story’s premise is suspiciously similar to that of tonight’s second feature, The Invisible Killer.

I’m not suggesting the movie ripped off its premise from the comic book (though I suppose it is possible; Detective Comics #27 hit newsstands eight months before The Invisible Killer’s premiere — more than enough time for a PRC production to go from script to screen).

But I am suggesting that certain ideas seem to bubble up in the entertainment industry’s collective unconscious, and it’s never been unusual for oddly similar ideas to surface more or less at the same time.

The killer’s m.o. in this movie is to plant gas capsules in telephone mouthpieces and trigger them remotely.  This seems an extremely unreliable way to commit murder but it does get points for style, and that’s important in the movies.
Now that I think about it, it’s important in comic books as well.



One comment

  1. SVENGALI was one of the few 1930s titles to appear during the debut season (1963-64) of Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, and was followed by a sequel, THE MAD GENIUS, featuring Boris Karloff in an unbilled bit. THE INVISIBLE KILLER served as just one example of poison in radio, others include DANGER ON THE AIR (1938), THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1939), and THE SCARLET CLUE (1945).


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