The Invisible Man Returns (1940, Joe May)

The best thing about The Invisible Man Returns is quite obviously Cecil Kellaway. He’s a Scotland Yard inspector who’s spent the eight years since the last movie preparing for another invisible man attack, making sure the Yard’s ready to go technologically.

Worst thing about The Invisible Man Returns? It’s a little long? There’s nothing really too bad about it. There’s just nothing too good about it either. John Sutton’s not bad. He’s just not good. Ditto female lead Nan Grey, who somehow manages to remain unaware of dirty old man Cedric Hardwicke’s lusty devotion to her. Hardwicke’s real obvious. He’s not ineffective either.

Okay, actually—worst thing about Invisible Man Returns? New Invisible Man Vincent Price. Despite being set in England, Price does this blandly gruff, very American voice. I was hoping he’d start, you know, using a Vincent Price voice once he got invisible but no. Sticks with the gruff thing the whole time. I can’t imagine it helped his performance anyway—scary thought, maybe it did.

With a better “monster,” the movie would be better. Especially given the contortions the script makes to get through the Code. Lester Cole and Curt Siodmak’s script, in that context, is easily the most impressive thing about the film. Otherwise, it’d be the effects, which aren’t every fantastic or narratively ambitious—the biggest effects set piece is a snorer with Price messing with Alan Napier. But the contortions….

Returns opens with an exposition dump in the kitchen of Hardwicke’s manor. None of the downstairs staff are important, it’s just for the exposition, which should be a better move than it turns out to be because there’s not much narrative efficiency later on.

Grey’s boyfriend (Price) is on death row—or whatever the English equivalent at the time—for killing his brother. Since going to prison, Hardwicke has taken over the brothers’ family mine business. From the first shot of Hardwicke it’s clear he’s madly in love with Grey and she doesn’t notice because he’s an old man with a terrible mustache.

Though maybe she doesn’t mind the mustache. Every guy in Returns except Kellaway and maybe Napier has a terrible mustache. You can’t tell with Napier because he’s covered in grime. Kellaway just doesn’t have one.

It’s the day before Price is going to be hanged so Grey finally has to plead with Hardwicke to call his friends in the government, which neither of them thought of doing until this moment, apparently. But, no, the Home Secretary is in Scotland so Price is going to die.

Or would die if it weren’t for Sutton, who just happens to be the brother of the original Invisible Man, something Kellaway figures out right away but apparently Hardwicke didn’t know about despite working with Sutton for a substantial time.

Sutton gives Price the serum, Price escapes, movie starts (after at least ten minutes of increasingly tedious exposition). Price has to figure out who killed his brother while Sutton has to figure out how to turn Price back to visible before Price goes criminally insane and starts murdering people.

The original Invisible Man, Kellaway tells us, murdered hundreds in the original movie, which doesn’t seem right but Kellaway would’ve exaggerated to get funding for his anti-Invisible Man task force. The task force turns out to be a red herring as the latter half of the film doesn’t have any big set pieces.

If the cast were better or showed signs of being better, their mediocre turns would be more disappointing. Any of them—Price, Grey, Sutton, Hardwicke—should’ve been able to walk away with the movie. Instead, they just manage to keep stride with it.

May’s direction is fine. Not at all distinctive, but fine. Frank Gross’s editing is probably the worst technical feature and, again, it’s not really bad, it’s just never, ever good.

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