Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Invisible Killer (PRC, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Invisible Killer, a 1940 release from what was then known as Producers’ Pictures but which eventually settled on the name Producers’ Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short. (Inevitably, given the cheapness of most of their movies, the Hollywood jokesters of the time said the initials really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap.”) The title seemed to suggest a horror film but it was really PRC’s (or Producers’ Pictures’) attempt to do their own version of the Torchy Blane movies at Warners, with Grace Bradley as the spunky reporter (called “Sue Walker” here) who keeps beating the cops in general and her cop boyfriend, Lieutenant Jerry Brown (Roland Drew), in particular to murder scenes and reporting them in her paper. The intrigue around this one is sparked by the murder of Jimmy Clark (whom we never see, alive or dead) inside an illegal gang-run casino, and Sue and Jerry are racing each other to find the secret boss of the gambling racket. This isn’t exactly the freshest premise for a movie (it wasn’t then, either!), but it has a few interesting turns: the secret boss knocks off a potential witness, Lefty Ross (Sydney Grayler), by secreting a gas capsule inside the transmitter of a telephone so that it goes off whenever the phone is raised, the intended victim gets a fistful of poisoned gas and dies. (At least two prior movies, Charlie Chan in Egypt and Mr. Wong, Detective, had used similar gimmicks.)

There’s also an avuncular attorney named Cunningham (Boyd Irwin) who’s been leasing property to the gang, unbeknownst to him, and who’s also the head of a reform committee aimed at cleaning up the gangs — which seems to be setting him up to be the secret gang boss himself, only for once writers Carter Wayne and Joseph O’Donnell throw us a curve ball and we realize Cunningham can’t be the big boss since he’s murdered two-thirds of the way through the film. Cunningham also has a daughter, Gloria (Jeanne Kelly, essentially what Minna Gombell was to Myrna Loy in the first Thin Man movie), who’s dating Enslee, a lounge-lizard type who turns out to be Mr. Big (had the writers seen the original Secret Agent X-9, the comic series drawn by Alex Raymond from scripts by Dashiell Hammett, in which he also had a lounge-lizard type turn out to be a master criminal?), and a double-agent in Jerry’s secretary Tyler (Harry Worth) who’s been leaking information to the gang, and whom they trick into revealing the location of Enslee’s hideout, setting up a final shootout that director Sherman Scott (t/n Sam Newfield; under his two identities Newfield/Scott would shoot a surprisingly high proportion of PRC’s total output in its eight years of existence) had neither the budget nor the imagination to make dramatically interesting. While on one level this is yet another crime movie from the 1930’s that would have been considerably better if it had been made at Warners (where they would have had better actors and, even more importantly, a director with a sense of pace), The Invisible Menace is a workmanlike movie that probably served its original purpose as a double-bill filler-outer even if it doesn’t have the flair the occasional PRC’s directed by better people than Sam Newfield/Sherman Scott (like Edgar G. Ulmer, Steve Sekely and Frank Wisbar) offered.