Saturday, October 12, 1973: The Invisible Man (1933) / Night Key (1937)

A re-release poster for THE INVISIBLE MAN. Note that at the bottom of the poster the Invisible Man’s jacket and goggles don’t match Griffin’s in the film – it is, in fact, Vincent Price from THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS.

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.

He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley’s underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white — and drives them mad.

Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.

Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head — revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene.

At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed.

That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can’t reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps’s laboratory to work on a solution.
But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn’t imagining how he can “make the world grovel” at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause…

Comments: We’ve been seeing some of the big Universal classics on the show lately — some of which we haven’t seen in a couple of years. Three weeks ago we saw The Bride of Frankenstein, and last week The Mummy made a rare appearance on the show. Tonight it’s the original Claude Rains vehicle The Invisible Man.

It’s a film I never get tired of seeing. It works as well as the day it was released, featuring crackling dialogue, special effects that still hold up, a towering lead performance and a story that actually improves upon the novel it was based on.  

It was a smash hit when it premiered on November 18, 1933. “Photographic magic abounds in the production, the work being even more startling than was that of Douglas Fairbanks’s old picture The Thief of Bagdad“, wrote the Times’ film critic Mordaunt Hall.   “The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement.”

James Whale’s original Frankenstein did not capture the director’s wicked sense of humor, but this one does.  And The Invisible Man benefits greatly from the contributions of screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, who also wrote The Dam Busters, one of the best war movies ever produced.

It’s hard to even talk about the movie without considering the performance of Claude Rains, who vividly portrays the mad scientist who is, as the opening credits call him, “The Invisible One”.  It’s difficult to imagine how the movie would have worked with another actor in the lead; Rains brings such authority and urgency to his largely vocal performance that he winds up carrying a good deal of it on his own.  No actor of the time could have equaled that performance; even Karloff, who had been briefly considered, was not up to the task — he was primarily a physical actor, and his vocal range would not have been impressive enough to pull it off . 
Rains’ performance is even more impressive when you consider that the actors he worked with — especially Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan — were hapless examples of Hollywood cinema of the early 1930s: stuffy, stagebound and dull.   In spite of this, the movie clips along nicely, and nothing seems superfluous.  It’s one of the best movies of its era, one that simply improves on repeated viewing.  

Night Key

It’s been many years since inventor David Mallory (Boris Karloff) developed the electronic burglar alarm system that he sold to Stephen Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds). The system made Ranger a wealthy man, and Ranger Security the most successful vendor of alarm systems in New York. But Ranger also cheated Mallory out of the profits, and now takes credit for the invention himself.

Now elderly with failing eyesight, Mallory sees a chance to make a fortune for his daughter Joan (Jean Rogers) to inherit. He has devised a new and greatly improved security system, one that uses photoelectric beams rather than electric wires to trip the alarm circuit. Mallory’s lawyer tells him that Ranger wants to buy the exclusive rights to the new system, and with a lawyer negotiating the contract, he feels certain he won’t get cheated a second time. What he doesn’t know is that Ranger has bribed Mallory’s lawyer to work against the inventor’s interests. After the papers are signed, Ranger declares that he sees no need to implement the new security system. According to the contract his crooked lawyer drew up, Mallory only makes money if the new system is used. Why, Mallory asks, would Ranger buy a system he had no intention of using? Ranger replies that he simply wanted to keep the new system out of the hands of his competitors. And with the contract Mallory just signed, he won’t have to pay a penny for it.

Angered, Mallory tells Ranger that “What I create, I can destroy”. He leaves Ranger’s office, and on his way out he finds a man in Ranger Security’s holding cell. Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanough) was picked up by Ranger Security’s men for breaking into a clothing store, and is waiting to be handed over to the police.

Mallory carries a device he created long ago that can circumvent any electronic lock in the system he created. He uses this “night key” to spring Petty Louie from his cell, then leaves an ominous graffito behind on the holding cell wall: “What I create, I can destroy — Night Key”.

Over the following nights, Mallory and Petty Louie go on a campaign with the intention of forcing Ranger to implement the new security system. They use the Night Key to gain entry into businesses protected by Ranger Security and commit harmless pranks: opening all the umbrellas in an umbrella shop, or setting all the clocks in a clock shop to chime simultaneously when the police arrive.

The newspapers have a field day making Ranger Security look foolish and incompetent. A frustrated Ranger wants Mallory caught, but he knows he can’t endure the bad publicity for long.

Soon gangster John Baron aka The Kid (Alan Baxter) gets wind of Mallory’s exploits, and has his men track him down. The Kid orders Mallory to use the Night Key to assist him in robberies — and if he doesn’t, both he and his daughter will be killed….

Comments: Tonight is our very first broadcast of Night Key, which despite being one of the original 52 Shock! titles remains fairly elusive. It’s not a horror movie, despite the presence of Boris Karloff. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama that features lots of gangsters — the go-to bad guys of 1930s cinema.

It’s actually a decent little thriller, sporting one performance that almost steals the show, and another that almost sinks it.

The scenes demonstrating the Depression-era alarm systems are pretty good and quite believable (the master control panel in Ranger Security’s headquarters is particularly well-rendered), and we accept that Mallory’s new photoelectric system is a vast improvement over the old one, even if it’s improbable that no one else in the alarm industry seems to be working on improvements to the existing technology.

The film pivots nicely from Mallory and Petty Louie committing cute little break-ins to Mallory being forced to commit serious crimes, but the script runs out of ideas and we wind up with the Night Key being used for absurd, contrived purposes, such as disabling a car.

Boris Karloff plays a character much older than he actually was (as he would in Before I Hang) and he does a good job as the naive tinkerer who gets in over his head. It’s asking a lot of the audience to believe that Mallory would sell his new alarm system to Ranger, after having been cheated out of a fortune by him once, but Karloff sells it about as well as anyone could.

Hobart Cavanaugh shines as Petty Louie, the good-hearted crook who teams up with Karloff to commit a series of harmless break-ins. The two have great chemistry and their scenes together are the best part of the film.

Jean Rogers as Joan does well enough, but her romantic subplot with Warren Hull is strictly perfunctory, apparently there just to pad out the running time.

Unfortunately, Alan Baxter’s performance as The Kid is simply dreadful, and it’s not clear what he’s doing in the movie business at all, let alone in this film. His performance is on a community-theater level, and he speaks in a flat monotone. He doesn’t bring anything approaching the necessary weight or menace to the role, and the movie stalls every time he appears on screen.

One comment

  1. My Dad loved THE INVISIBLE MAN, and seeing familiar faces like Dwight Frye, John Carradine and Walter Brennan unbilled, all of whom would be back for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (for some reason the Laemmles assumed that Carradine was British, despite playing a shantytown resident in his studio debut, 1931’s HEAVEN ON EARTH). NIGHT KEY was another of his favorites, a great fan of Ward Bond who meets a rather shocking end in this one. Alan Baxter essayed a slain corrupt reporter in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, but in later years played mostly law officers.


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