Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Invisible Ghost (Banner/Monogram, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the film The Invisible Ghost — a 1941 Monogram vehicle for Bela Lugosi — mainly because Joseph H. Lewis was the director and after having watched My Name Is Julia Ross, Lewis’s “breakthrough” film from Columbia four years later, I thought it would be fun to see Lewis’s eye for artistic compositions and instinct for using them to liven up a rather silly movie up against the demented stupidity of one of Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions, released through Monogram. The Invisible Ghost was the first film Lugosi made for Katzman (earlier Lugosi had made The Mysterious Mr. Wong for the first iteration of Monogram in 1935, but that was not one of the studio’s most distinguished pictures, a Mask of Fu Manchu knockoff in which Lugosi played a Chinese madman obsessed with collecting the 12 coins of Confucius and thereby establishing himself as the ruler of the Chinese province of Keelat) and its script was by Helen and Al Martin.

I presume the Martins were a married couple (though they could have been brother and sister — lists Al Martin but doesn’t mention either a wife or a sister in the business, and doesn’t list this particular Helen Martin at all) — later Al would write, solo, a better horror vehicle which Lewis directed at Universal, The Mad Doctor of Market Street — and on this occasion they came forth with a potentially interesting plot premise: Charles Kessler (Lugosi) mourns the death of his wife (former silent-screen star Betty Compson), to the point that not only is his living room dominated by a Laura-style portrait of her but every year, on the evening of their wedding anniversary, he has his manservant Evans (Clarence Muse, who though he’s playing a Black servant gets to portray a genuinely dignified, actually intelligent character with none of the eye-rolling stupidity of Stepin Fetchit or Willie Best) serve a dinner for both of them, presenting “her” portion to an empty chair which he addresses as if she were still alive.

Only she is still alive; she supposedly died in a car crash while running off with her lover (“the usual best friend,” Lugosi explains to his daughter’s boyfriend, in a low-keyed line reading that’s not at all the kind of acting we expect from him), but in fact she survived, badly scarred (at least that’s what the script tells us; it looks like all she needs is a comb-over and some fresh makeup) and unwilling to present herself to her husband in her current state for fear he’d reject her. She hides out in the basement of the estate (later reused by Monogram as the basement of Lugosi’s mission in Bowery at Midnight), where she’s fed and looked after by Kessler’s gardener, Jules (Ernie Adams) — only periodically she slips out and appears at Kessler’s window, hypnotizing him into murdering the first available victim, which means he spends most of the movie knocking off his own household staff.

This being a Monogram movie, the police never even bother to suspect Kessler despite all of the victims having been on his payroll; instead, when Cecile (Terry Walker), a former girlfriend of Kessler’s daughter’s boyfriend Ralph Dickson (John McGuire), hires on as Kessler’s new maid and is promptly found dead — strangled, like all the other victims, with a long black robe (yet another attempt in a Lugosi movie to tap the Dracula imagery even though this film has nothing to do with vampirism) so there are no fingerprints on her — the cops nail Ralph for it and he’s arrested, sentenced to death and actually executed. Only it turns out Ralph had a brother, Paul (also played by John McGuire), who shows up to investigate the crimes himself and see if he can exonerate the dead Ralph (a little late, don’t you think?) — a gimmick that had been used in a previous Lugosi film, Murder by Television, in which it was Lugosi’s character who was killed midway through and replaced by a lookalike “brother” whom he also played.

Kessler gets hypnotized three more times, knocking off Jules and nearly killing his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) — she’s saved by a bolt of lightning that de-hypnotizes him and snaps him to his usual moral state — and on the fourth go-round he tries to kill Evans before his wife actually appears on the scene, then collapses and dies, and in the end Kessler is taken into custody by the police. There are a few elements of this script that don’t follow the usual trend of a Lugosi vehicle — he’s the hypnotism victim instead of the hypnotizer, and at the end he’s actually arrested instead of killed (the number of films in which Bela Lugosi’s character didn’t die is about the same as the number of films John Wayne made in which he did die) — but for the most part The Invisible Ghost is the usual malarkey Lugosi got saddled with after Universal let him go.

As for Lewis, he tries — he really tries — to enliven this stupid story with creative visuals; the man who brought along a collection of wagon wheels to the set of his “B” Westerns and shot through them to give scenes visual distinction not surprisingly looks for similar devices in a modern-dress setting, and he finds them. Much of the exposition is shot with the camera pointing out through the Kessler fireplace, with the action framed by licking flames and air currents that, like the wagon wheels in Lewis’s Westerns, distract us from how silly the dialogue is; and Compson’s last two appearances as Lugosi’s (unwitting) hypnotist both take place in driving rain, anticipating the rainstorm that began My Name Is Julia Ross. “Unlike the typical Monogram hack who viewed the studio only as a last stop,” Tom Weaver writes in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, “Lewis looked on it as only a First Step, and he loads the film with mildly interesting camera moves, lighting effects, editing tricks and the like. … The camera, often immobile in low-budget pictures, dollies and swoops around regularly, and there are many high- and low-angle shots; it even passes through walls as characters troop from one room to another.”

Weaver also notes the sequences that are shot in mirrors (many creative directors, including Orson Welles and Douglas Sirk, were fascinated with mirrors) and the creativity with which Lewis and his cinematographers, Marcel Le Picard and Harvey Gould, shoot the first meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Kessler — though the scene’s power gets vitiated when it’s repeated again and again, almost identically, whenever the script calls for her to hypnotize him (a typical trick at ultra-cheap studios like Monogram, where it probably was the identical footage each time!). The Invisible Ghost is a silly movie — why this script got a talented and visually imaginative director like Lewis while the far superior Bowery at Midnight, with which Lewis could have had a field day, got stuck with hack director Wallace Fox is a mystery. Weaver notes that The Invisible Ghost is a particular favorite of Lugosi fans because he got to play a character who was (mostly) kindly and paternal — though the gimmick of the serial killer who’s an ultra-nice guy when he isn’t actually killing was pulled far, far better by Edgar G. Ulmer and Pierre Gendron in PRC’s 1944 Bluebeard — but it’s of interest, if at all, only for Lewis’s visually stunning direction and his ability to make a classy-looking film even with a penny-pinching budget, a quickie schedule, a cheesy script and only two genuinely good actors, Lugosi and Compson.