Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saturday, May 1, 1971: The Black Cat (1934) / The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan's beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.

At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.

Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the futuristic house built on the ruins of the old fortress.

This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world's greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast's visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast's wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast's daughter as his own.

Wedegast treats Joan's injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night's sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Werdegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.

Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before -- more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.

Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.

Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his "childish" and "melodramatic" impulses. Realizing that this isn't yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.

Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin -- she is, in fact, Werdegast's long-lost daughter....

Comments:  This grim tale of torment and revenge is deeply weird, as you might expect from reading the synopsis, but not so unconventional as to throw out all the requirements of Hollywood entertainment.   Karloff and Lugosi are clearly committed to each other’s destruction, and we know their story isn’t going to end happily.  So we are given a pair of American lovebirds as ostensible protagonists, with the knowledge that no matter what happens to anyone else, these two will be okay.

In many ways Poelzig and Werdegast are stand-ins for the exhausted European nations that fought the Great War: they are, as Poelzig says, "the living dead", their bodies refusing to quit long after the horrors of war have broken their souls. For all the death and destruction they have witnessed, they know there won't really be peace until they have destroyed one another completely.

David Manners’ Peter Allison introduces himself as “America’s greatest writer of unimportant books” and this is an important admission.  He is very much a European’s idea of an American, circa 1935:  callow, good-natured, and ultimately frivolous.  Allison hails from a country that escaped the Great War unscathed, and he and his wife, in their ignorance, treat the battlefields they pass as interesting scenery.  They are completely unable to sense the roiling emotions all around them.   Nor do they suspect that some of the war’s casualties are still alive, and still plotting one another’s destruction.

The madness of Werdegast and Poelzig is masked for a time by their unfailing good manners; but Poelzig gives himself away almost before we meet him.  The truth is, no sane man would build his house upon the ruins of such a dark chapter in history – his own personal history as well as that of his country.  That the fortress was also the place where he betrayed the thousands of men under his command only makes his madness more vivid.  Monomania is a convenient tip-off to insanity, and you don't get more monomaniacal than building your house on a blood-drenched battlefield and keeping your friend's dead wife in a glass trophy case.

For his part, Werdegast is so hollowed out he lives for nothing but revenge.  His two crippling bouts of ailurophobia show the extent to which his psyche has been corroded.  The man who emerged from the Russian prison camp isn’t the same man who went in; and we can't blame him for rejecting the notion that living well is the best revenge.  Nope, Dr. Werdegast wants Poelzig's scalp and is willing to pay for it with his life. But in spite of fifteen years of plotting, the best plan he can come up with is knocking on Poelzig's door and demanding answers.

In fact, for all their sinister mugging, neither Weredegast nor Poelzig seem to have much idea what they're planning to do next.  Poelzig's designs on Joan as a human sacrifice aren't very well thought-out, and Weredegast's decision to flay Poelzig alive seems rather spur-of-the-moment as well.   Sacrificing people to the Devil and skinning your enemies alive are important tasks, after all;  not the sort of things that should be undertaken willy-nilly.

The Invisible Man Returns

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 Shock (1946) makes exquisite use of Price's warm 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.

The Invisible Man Returns is a splendid second feature for Horror Incorporated, jumping quickly out the gate and holding our attention right away.  That's important for the viewer watching at 1:30 a.m., wondering whether to stick with the show or turn in for the night.  It's easy to imagine a viewer seeing the first few minutes of this movie and deciding to watch just a little longer.  In the days before it was possible to time-shift programs, such decisions were important to a show's ratings, and this lively little programmer would be a good choice for the second feature slot.


kochillt said...

As the doomed bus driver talks about the war, the Alisons listen attentively with a bemused expression, while Werdegast simply closes his eyes, the visuals all too clear in his mind's eye. Yes, the same factions responsible for WW1 weren't quite finished with the rest of the world. A strange and fascinating Hollywood production, made by Europeans who probably had no idea they were touching a still sensitive nerve, as storm clouds gathered for only five more years before the outbreak of another world war. THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS was a worthy follow up to the 1933 original, but over the years has become overly familiar as several other films (and even TV series) have slavishly copied the 'invisible protagonist tracks down visible antagonist.' Pittsburgh even aired a 1958 Mexican remake, THE NEW INVISIBLE MAN, which, even by 1973, hardly appeared new at all. Good work Mike.

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