It's the fifth and last of Universal's Invisible Man movies, if you don't count Abbott and Costello
. I struggled a bit, but it's solid enough and an above-average entry for the series.
Its problem is also, from another viewpoint, a strength. If you like moral ambiguity, this is the film for you. The protagonist (Jon Hall) might be either a lunatic or a criminal. We're not sure. Both seem plausible. He's definitely escaped from somewhere. Anyway, he has a genuine grievance against his victims-to-be and they were ready to settle a huge sum of money on him, but unfortunately that's not enough for Hall and instead he wants to ruin them in an attempt to extort money that isn't there. In other words, he's stupid. Later, he also becomes homicidally insane and self-deluding.
By that point we're watching a horror movie. This was my favourite stretch. I didn't find Hall's character particularly interesting for most of the movie, but the last twenty minutes of this movie are kind of disturbing. As horror, it's good.
So Hall's the bad guy and we're meant to be rooting for his victims, right? Nope. They're flawed too, willing to play dirty to save their necks. They're neither likeable nor detestable. In other words, they're ordinary. If it gives you any idea, one of them is the Oscar-winning and mildly sinister Gale Sondergaard, best known among geeks as Sherlock Holmes's enemy in The Spider Woman
No, it's the supporting acts who are worth watching. One of them's John Carradine, who was also Universal's latest Dracula (House of Frankenstein
, House of Dracula
). That's ironic, bearing in mind what happens to him here. His first shot looks particularly Dracula-like, incidentally, as he opens a door in a storm. I'm not really a fan of Carradine, to be honest, but he's still a big name with a face it's hard to look away from. The guy's so thin! It's as if someone stretched him on the rack like toffee. Here he's the scientist who's invented an invisibility potion and it's a silly coincidence that Jon Hall's Invisible Man is called Griffin, like all the others.
However the best thing here by miles is someone I'd never heard of. Do you know Leon Errol? He's amazing. He's a ball of comic energy, full of pomposity and character. He's venal, lying and lovable. "I stuck by you when you were poor; you don't think I'm going to desert you now you're rich?" I went a bit crazy for him, in fact. He made me laugh whenever he was on screen, despite the fact that as a whole I was finding the film a bit dull. Apparently he was an Australian-born comedian and actor who made it big in vaudeville and on Broadway. He made films too, but most of them are comedy shorts. Of those he did six a year until his death in 1951. Errol's darts game in this movie has nothing to do with anything and could theoretically be cut in a heartbeat, but it's also a joy to watch and one of the movie's highlights. What's interesting is that the scene doesn't really have scripted jokes. It's just Errol doing it all with raw personality.
So I didn't find the characters sympathetic. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but on top of that, Hall's objectives are ridiculous. This makes him more convincingly deranged, but it's a triumph for Hall's performance that the movie's watchable at all. This character thinks:
(a) an Invisible Man can sue someone in court
(b) an Invisible Man can use money
(c) an Invisible Man can marry a girl, who furthermore is in love with someone else
(d) scary megalomaniac rants at the dinner table aren't incompatible with wooing her
(e) killing someone like a vampire every day for the rest of your life is a practical ongoing strategy
(f) you can gloat at someone non-stop while beating them up and the sound of your voice won't give them any clue as to where to try to throw their next punch. In fairness though, the film is under the same misapprehension.
The special effects are great again, though. Watch out for the scene where the Invisible Man sticks his hand in a fish tank. There's something wonderful about watching clever special effects in an old black-and-white film, which we've lost today with CGI. Back then, it took imagination.
The storyline's solid, though. Most of my complaints above aren't plot holes, since they're simply characterisation of Hall in his madness. Theoretically I like the way the film walks a tightrope with all these flawed but all too understandable people. You don't just give up on Hall. He's been through hell. He's earned the right to a bit of psychotic behaviour. You know what it's like in his shoes. Meanwhile I'm impressed by the logical and unbelievably nasty use to which the film puts its invisibility cure, while I like the foreshadowing of the finale.
In most respects, it's a good film. I'm sure it has fans who are intelligent and passionate about it. Besides, even second-string Universal like this is worth watching and I half-suspect that I'd merely got up on the wrong side of bed or something. It's doing everything it wants to do and by the end, it's turned into passable horror. And don't forget Leon Errol.
"He's fearless and you can trust him. A little. I'll watch him too."