Definitely one of the better Abbott and Costello movies. Not only is it a good film in its own right, but once we're past those dodgy first twenty minutes I didn't even mind Costello being in it. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite fond of the little guy, but he always acts the same no matter what the situation and it can be pretty much pot luck whether his presence is a good thing or a disaster.
For starters, it's not really a horror-comedy. It's more akin to Film Noir, although obviously no movie starring this pair will ever be truly noirish. Yes, there's an Invisible Man, courtesy of a doctor who knows about Jack Griffin's serum and even has Claude Rains's picture on the wall. However once you've got past the trappings, the Invisible Man himself is a champion boxer on the run for a murder he didn't commit, working to nail the gangsters who wanted him to take a dive. There's a femme fatale. There's a boxing match where no matter who wins, our heroes are going to make enemies. This is all good stuff. Even if the comedy had fallen flat, I'd have still wanted to see how things turned out with Tommy Nelson.
Oh yeah. That's the transparent chap. He does a good job without making me want to look up his resume. He has an awesomely good-looking fiancee, played by Nancy Guild. She's okay except for the scene where she hugs her invisible beloved, in which she loses her eyeline and isn't convincing at all. She didn't hang around long in the movie industry. There's also a femme fatale with the ludicrously unflattering name of Boots, who's unfortunately far less attractive than Nancy Guild. She'd get a pass if she were up against anyone else, though.
Don't get me wrong, this is a well-acted film. It's just that Abbott & Costello production values were often so high that I'd been led to expect caviare on toast. If we're going to continue the food analogy, this is simply a good solid well-cooked steak with all the trimmings, but also a half-done turnip tagging along for the ride. (You know who I'm talking about.) If you want a memorable performance in this film, you'll have to go to the three-time Emmy award-winning Sheldon Leonard as our lead gangster. He won his awards as an actor, a director and a producer, incidentally. Here he's playing a man called Boots. Yup, just like the femme fatale. A pair of Boots. You can tell them apart by their surnames. It's not a big role, but he gets in some nice glowering.
I've come to expect an Abbott & Costello film to look good and here that's still true. The special effects for instance are done by David Horsley, the man who'd done them on The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent. They're more ambitious than in James Whale's original, in particular with the shot of the Invisible Man half-visible in smoke. That one looked so natural that I didn't even think of it as an effect until afterwards. However there are also more goofs than in 1933, with more obvious matting in the first disrobing shot, a cloudy outline of hands when he's dealing in the poker game and a moment of see-through clothing in the car. I'm nitpicking, though. These are impressive special effects and you'd have to be a churl to say otherwise.
However all that's just the trimmings. It's time to talk about the comedians.
The beginning of the film didn't put me in a good mood. We begin with him qualifying as a detective, despite having been a failure in his studies at detective school. He's only made it to the graduation ceremony because Abbott slipped someone twenty bucks. What's remarkable about this is that the script seems to be anticipating Spike Milligan's Goon Show, which started in exactly the same year, by making fun of its two heroes' stupidity, dishonesty and incompetence. It's even part of the plot. Abbott repeatedly tries to double-cross his client. You'd think there was a world of comedy potential in a stupid, dishonest man at his graduation ceremony to become a detective... but no. Costello plays nothing but Costello. He goofs. He does his usual schtick. These early scenes seemed to showcase what doesn't work about this actor, with the only attempted joke being simply, "Look, Costello!"
Even the title filled me with dread. "Look, Abbott! He's just here... hey, where'd he go?" "I can't see anything!" "Gee, he was right here." SLAP. Imagine that repeated for sixty minutes and you've got a taste of my fear. The film's first act didn't counfound these expectations, with the police and their psychiatrist behaving exactly as you'd expect, but I perked up when the plot kicked in. The boxing world is particularly good. Costello gets taken for a champion boxer thanks to his invisible friend, which leads to some scenes that I'd go so far as to call memorable. There are some funny lines. I was definitely amused. It works better than most of the duo's monster movies, since the danger they face comes from imaginative plot-driven situations than just a monster costume and "he's behind you".
It's instructive to look at Costello's best scene. It's a pure routine. No plot. No connection to anything else. It's just Abbott, Costello and a wad of five hundred dollars. They're showing off their verbal and physical dexterity, plus a sense of the absurd that only's occasionally worked for me in these movies. Compare with the non-gag at the end of the film, incidentally. What is that? Invisible means invisible, not deformed. That idea isn't funny because it doesn't make sense. I've said before that I don't think Abbott and Costello are suited in conventional movie roles and instead might work much better when they're just doing comedy routines together. Abbott can be slick too, you know. I think this film backs me up in my opinion, although in fairness Costello works rather well in this plot, once it gets going.
Admittedly it's not the first time they'd done that routine in a film, but that doesn't mean it's not quite good anyway.
Incidentally this story is apparently similar to Universal's first sequel, The Invisible Man Returns (1940). The new chap had been played by Vincent Price, who even reprised the role as a cameo in a completely different Abbott and Costello film. That isn't acknowledged here. Ironically the third film in that series, The Invisible Woman (1940), had even been a comedy.
Oh, and I almost forgot. They break the food rules. If an Invisible Man eats food, it should stay visible inside him for an hour instead of disappearing the moment it goes inside his mouth. However I dare say they didn't forget that at all but instead deliberately chose to ignore it for the sake of the scene.
This is a good Invisible Man movie, a good Abbott & Costello movie and would have even made a good Film Noir if it had been dark instead of funny. The key to its success is a well-constructed plot. It's not particularly complicated, but you want to know what happens next and the comic set-pieces are central to the story instead of being obviously bolted on. Anything that involves boxing is a highlight... and that's from a man who doesn't even like boxing. The film's weak at the beginning, but it picks up later and makes good use of a difficult comedian. I've never had a problem with his straight man.
It even surprised me by not finishing with three or four Invisible Men running around chasing each other, along the lines of the duo's Mummy and Jekyll & Hyde films. Maybe the writers considered it, but decided it wouldn't have worked in a visual medium? Oddly enough, the success of these Abbott & Costello monster movies seems to correspond for me with the success of the original franchises. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Invisible Man were all great and spawned many sequels. Universal's mummy series is terrible. Paramount's 1931 Jekyll & Hyde is apparently excellent, but it didn't start a series. That's by the by, though. I wasn't wild about the beginning of the film, but it improved enough thereafter that I'd recommend it.