Thursday, April 3, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)

This sequel to the 1933 classic, The Invisible Man, stars Vincent Price as the latest victim of the invisibility formula that brings madness and doom to those who use it, a fate already experienced by Claude Rains in the original outing. Much like the first film, The Invisible Man Returns is primarily a showcase for its star’s distinctive voice and a series of special effects, although it lacks the pitch-black comedy and perverse genius of James Whale’s earlier work. Still, the 1940 installment provides enough entertainment in its performances and visual tricks to make for very good matinee fare, and Price fans are certain to appreciate the star’s early foray into the horror genre.

Price plays Geoffrey Radcliffe, who has been convicted of killing his brother and sentenced to hang. Innocent but desperate, Geoffrey accepts the help of his friend, Frank Griffin (John Sutton), the brother of the original invisible man. Frank has learned how to replicate his brother’s invisibility formula, which Geoffrey uses to escape prison and hunt his brother’s real killer, with the help of his fiancée, Helen (Nan Grey). Pursued by a Scotland Yard inspector (Cecil Kellaway) and rapidly succumbing to insanity caused by the formula, Geoffrey walks a fine line between hero and monster as he closes in on the secret enemy who framed him for his brother’s murder.

Although his mellifluous voice is heard almost constantly, Price spends most of the picture wrapped in bandages or completely unseen, which is a shame considering the actor’s youthful good looks. When we do see him, we understand why Helen is attracted to him, even though she recoils in horror from his invisible form. Price’s Geoffrey has more masculine appeal than either John Sutton’s nervous Doctor Griffin or Cedric Hardwicke’s oily Richard Cobb, but he also evinces a wry gallows humor that presages the kind of performance Price would become famous for in later years. Price’s delivery of his lines helps us believe in the invisible man as much as the special effects that show his movements, perhaps more so since only Price’s dialogue clues us in to Geoffrey’s many moods, from mounting insanity to melancholy and mournful despair.

The supporting players also work to suspend our disbelief in their unseen companion. Nan Grey is actually quite lovely as Geoffrey’s love interest, and she reacts with credible terror without seeming too weak to be worthy of Geoffrey’s devotion. Cedric Hardwicke pulls off some especially tricky physical business toward the end of the picture; he might be telegraphing Richard’s true intentions a bit too forcefully early on, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in making the real killer’s identity much of a mystery. Poor John Sutton has little to do beyond kicking the plot into motion as Dr. Griffin, since his character is basically a third wheel in every other scene with Geoffrey and Nan, although we do get the idea that he also harbors an unrequited passion for Nan. Character actors Alan Napier and Cecil Kellaway both make the most of their roles, with Napier getting some comical action as the drunken Spears and Kellaway managing to keep his policeman likable even though we know he has given orders to shoot on sight at an innocent man.

The Invisible Man Returns impressed the Academy with its special effects; it earned an Oscar nomination for them but faced stiff competition that year and lost to The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Joe May, who directed the film, also directed Vincent Price in The House of the Seven Gables (1940). See more of the inimitable Price’s work from this era in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Laura (1944). For more invisible man movies, try The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944).