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: Universal got a lot of mileage out of its various horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy each kicked out a number of profitable sequels. Oddly, The Invisible Man didn’t prove to be quite as durable. Tonight’s movie, The Invisible Man Returns, was the first and really the only decent follow-up. The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were all misfires of one kind or another.
The problem seems to be that once the protagonists turn invisible, their story options narrow considerably; the story can either focus on the invisible protagonist’s hijinks (creeping around like a ghost, listening in on private conversations, or smashing things like a poltergeist), or on the authorities’ efforts to locate and detain their quarry.
But hunting an invisible man can remain suspenseful for only so long. And the poltergeist route, as we’ve seen, gets tiresome rather quickly — particularly in Invisible Agent, where the thick-headed hero succeeds not because he’s clever, or even because he’s invisible, but because the Nazis he’s fighting are an uncommonly dim-witted and cowardly bunch.
That The Invisible Man Returns succeeds at all is largely due to its brisk pace and clever screenplay, which relies less on the invisibility gimmick than it does on a simple mystery story: who framed Geoffrey Radcliffe, and why?
John Sutton’s Frank Griffin connects us to the events of the first film, but Sutton himself is secondary to the action. Nan Grey gets a good deal more to do than most female leads of the time (certainly more than the dismal Gloria Stuart in the first film) and her performance is uncommonly intelligent, as we see her constantly trying to suss out Geoffrey’s erratic mental state. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who famously disliked appearing in genre pictures, is nevertheless splendid here. His Richard Cobbe is a smooth and reassuring presence throughout the early part of the picture; we trust him implicitly, and when his betrayal becomes clear it adds enormous impact to the final act.
Watching Vincent Price in this film makes me empathize with casting directors in the early 1940s. It was clear that Price was an uncommon talent, yet finding the right roles for him must have been extraordinarily difficult. He clearly wasn’t cut out to be a romantic lead, yet he was in some ways too warm and sympathetic to play a conventional bad guy. Early in his career he was often cast as a character who seemed pleasant on the surface, but who proved to be hiding a sinister agenda (we’re clearly supposed to wonder which way he would fall in The Invisible Man Returns, and both Laura (1944) and Shock (1946) make exquisite use of Price’s outwardly charming yet vaguely unsettling demeanor). In time this dilemma would be addressed by constructing the sort of hybrid character that Price specialized in playing: the grimly amused owner of an existential spookhouse, the same sort of character that Lugosi tried unsuccessfully to play in The Raven– and one can only imagine the sinister delight that Price would have brought to that role.
We haven’t seen this title lately on Horror Incorporated, but its return to the lineup is welcome; and it is a very good choice for the 8pm Friday night edition.