The Invisible Man Appears/Tômei ningen arawaru (1949)

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)‘Gadzooks, it’s the cops! Let’s go!’

An elderly scientist has been working to perfect an invisibility formula for over ten years. His two best students are also tackling the problem, albeit from different angles, whilst they compete for the hand of his eldest daughter. Unfortunately, the naive professor makes the mistake of showing his research to a slimy businessman…

Apparently, Japan’s first science fiction movie, this serious-minded excursion into H. G. Wells territory is modelled after the Universal ‘Invisible Man’ series of the 1930s and early 1940s. One of the ‘unmasking’ scenes even bares a close resemblance to Claude Rains ‘unwrapping’ in the guest room of the pub in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) itself. We also get the usual round of floating cigarettes, sinking seat cushions and naked footprints appearing out of nowhere.

However, instead of the usual ‘mad scientist on the run’ plot, this story focuses more on the criminal possibilities afforded by invisibility, specifically the efforts of a gang of crooks to heist a priceless diamond necklace called ‘Amour Tears.’ Actually, with its skilful use of light and shadow and impressive black and white cinematography, the film often looks more like an American Film Noir than anything else. There’s also an element of mystery about the identity of the Invisible Man, which is unusual, even if the solution is not that hard to guess.

One of the notable facts about this production is the participation of Eiji Tsuburaya, who was in charge of the SFX. These are fairly slick, given the vintage of the film,  but still not quite as good as those delivered by Hollywood in previous years. Tsuburaya was actually blacklisted at the time, having worked with the governing regime during World War II, but he sidestepped the ban by forming his own company, which was credited rather than him. Five years later, he was instrumental in bringing ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954) to life and a long career followed as head of FX with Toho Studios and their stable of monsters. The only other familiar name is that of actor Shosaku Sugiyama, who appeared in ‘Daimajin’ (1966) for rival studio Daei. This folk tale featured a giant statue on the rampage in a coastal community and spawned two sequels.

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)

‘No one will recognise me with these sunglasses on…’

The film was quite a domestic hit and Japanese cinema returned to the character, if not this incarnation, on several occasions. Whether it can be successfully argued that this project paved the way for Japan’s science fiction bonanza of the 1950s is doubtful. This often plays far more like a crime picture with some fantastic trimmings than science fiction and it’s more likely that Japanese filmmakers were still taking their main inspiration from Hollywood rather than from their own recent cinematic history.

A sober and sometimes thoughtful thriller, which puts a slightly different slant on what is now an all-too familiar tale to modern audiences. It may not bring a whole lot of original ideas to the table but presents what it has in a cool, professional manner and provides a decent level of entertainment.

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Counterblast (1948)

Counterblast_(1948)‘I think I’d better make it quite clear that I’m not in the habit of pulling peoples’ legs, particularly the legs of my assistants. It’s apt to lead to misunderstandings.’

After the Second World War, a top Nazi scientist escapes from prison in Great Britain. On the run, he contacts the remains of Hitler’s underground spy network. Instead of arranging his escape to South America, they assign him to take the place of a top research bacteriologist at a secret British government laboratory.

Unusual, but dreary British post-war thriller that steps into Science Fiction territory via Herr Professor’s work in germ warfare. A no name cast go through the expected intrigues, romance and spy shenanigans while a clumsy musical soundtrack sledgehammers plot points home for those who may have intermittently dozed off.

Truth be told renegade Nazi brainbox Mervyn Johns is an incredibly rubbish secret agent. Rather than laying low and fitting in with his fellow scientists, his behaviour is stand-offish, dictatorial and sometimes just plain weird. He lets his fanaticism show through so often that It’s a miracle he isn’t rumbled in the first five minutes, but it’s only his elderly landlady that suspects that something is wrong. However, when he starts putting the moves on pretty lab assistant Nova Pilbeam (told you he was a rubbish spy!), hunky colleague Robert Beatty starts to ‘get the lug’ and investigate.

Counterblast_(1948)

‘I think you love that microscope more than me.’

Although the setup initially shows some promise with Johns bouncing from one contact to another in the Nazi underground, by the time he arrives at the lab the film has settled into a dull succession of talky sequences. We’re only too aware of his identity, so the only suspense revolves around what he’s up to, and if he’s going to get caught. His activities mainly involve playing around with test tubes (he does cure the common cold!), but obviously he has a far more sinister agenda.

We’re fairly sure how things will eventually come out, of course, which results in absolutely zero tension. But what really sinks this enterprise is the hopelessly contrived and drippy romantic sub-plot. The love triangle is scarcely credible, and brings the story to a shuddering halt. Of course, the suspicion here is that it’s just there to pad the running time to its near 98 minutes (count ‘em!) and nothing occurs in the later stages of the film to dispel that notion.

Performances are professional, if uninspired, a description that could just as easily be applied to the entire project. The presence of stage actor Archie Duncan briefly brings a touch of life to the proceedings, but his skills were better utilised in the Ronald Howard ‘Sherlock Holmes’ TV series, where he featured regularly as Inspector Lestrade, and played other roles, including a woman! The film ends with Herr Professor on the run with a test tube of lethal plague, but director Paul M Stein can evoke little tension in the outcome when the build-up has been so underwhelming. The climax is unusual, but not very dramatic and the film slips away into the graveyard of forgotten quasi-Science Fiction with barely a whimper.

Distributor Herbert Bregstein changed the title of the film to ‘Devil’s Plot‘ when he sold it to American theatres in 1953. It wasn’t only a better title, it also helped to hide that the film had already been sold to television under its original name!

The Mysterious Mr. M (1946)

The_Mysterious_Mr_M_(1946)‘We realise on this end how disastrous it would be if an engine capable of moving submarines as large as ocean liners should fall into the hands of the Mysterious Mr. M…’

Professor Kittridge has invented a revolutionary new submarine engine in secret. When he is murdered by a foreign power, the race is on to track down all the components and the blueprints to put them together. Agents from Washington find themselves up against a sinister criminal mastermind, who will stop at nothing…

Wonderfully convoluted movie serial from Universal Studios, which makes up for what it lacks in logic with sheer pace and action. Wooden good guy Dennis Moore locks horns with criminal mastermind the Mysterious Mr M, who communicates by the medium of long playing record. This infuriates underling Edmund MacDonald who actually came up with the identity as a cover for his own nefarious schemes, and is less than chuffed when someone appropriates the title and starts giving him orders. MacDonald is Anthony Waldron, a man presumed dead by the police (we never find out why they’d be interested one way or the other!) and living in a secret laboratory in his grandmother’s basement. He has control of Granny’s money by use of his confederates Danny Morton and Jane Randolph, who keep her dosed up with a chemical from Africa called Hypnotrene, which they also use on people for purposes of mind control. You see, it’s all perfectly feasible!

The plot is the usual round of chases for individual elements of the Professor’s invention; sometimes mechanical components, more often than not plans or formulas. One of these is a radar device, which, rather brilliantly, the villains miniaturise into an earpiece for more mind control purposes! Moore is aided by insurance investigator Pamela Blake who, mostly, acts as the ‘damsel in distress’ but does get to land an aeroplane single handed, despite having no experience as a pilot. lt always amazes me that insurance investigators, journalists, and the like are often allowed in on investigations concerned with matters of national security, but I guess it was government policy back in the 1940s.

The_Mysterious_Mr_M_(1946)

Dennis Moore either had indigestion, or he had just been shot. It was hard to tell…

Universal obviously weren’t as well known for their output of movie serials as Republic or Columbia, but they made a fair amount. Usually, they were not on such outlandish subjects, so it’s nice to see them making an exception and delivering a decent effort, packed with the usual bouts of fisticuffs and cliffhanging chapter endings. The presence of Moore in the lead is a weakness though, and sidekick Richard Martin seems to have had the same personality bypass.

On the bright side, however, MacDonald is excellent in the role of the ruthless Waldron, and it’s nice to see Randolph playing something other than the goody two shoes heroine menaced by the ‘Cat People’ (1942). Veteran character actors Joseph Crehan (370 credits!) and Byron Foulger also appear. Foulger gets a little something to sink his teeth into for once, instead of just being strangled by Karloff in the opening minutes of ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944).

Rather unusually, we don’t get captions at the start of each chapter (or a voiceover) to summarise what went on the week before. Instead, we get a short dialogue scene – usually featuring Crehan as the local police chief – which brings us up to date on what’s just happened. The wider story is recapped later on each week thanks to painfully over-explanatory dialogue between other characters. ‘Submarines as big as ocean liners’ is not usually a common subject for conversation in everyday life but crops up with surprising regulatory here!

One of the better later movie serials with more than its fair share of explosions, crashing automobiles, energetic bouts of fisticuffs and last minute escapes. Thoroughly entertaining.

The Monster and the Ape (1945)

The Monster and the Ape (1945)‘Ken Morgan and Professor Arnold locate the stolen Metallogen but, before Ken can recover it, he is attacked by hirelings of the treacherous Ernst. Suddenly…’

Professor Arnold has discovered a wonderful metallic element derived from a meteorite (weren’t they all?!) and uses it to control his 7-foot robot. Unfortunately, twisted genius and former colleague Professor Ernst plans to grab the robot as part of his evil plans…

Movie serials obviously made good financial sense for the studios. Hopefully, ticket buying audiences would keep coming back for more each and every week. But 15 chapters at roughly 20 minutes each was an awful lot of screen time to fill, especially when you didn’t have much plot or a decent budget. This was Columbia’s 26th serial and they had yet to engage the fearsome writer-producer-director trio of Plympton, Katzman and Bennet, although all were already working in the genre. Once they got into their groove the studio’s output notably improved but that was later on. At this point their product was flimsy at best.

It may seem a little churlish to highlight some of the inconsistencies in the story when this was simple entertainment made for young kids but they are probably the most interesting aspect of the final result. For a start, how did Professor Ernst just happen to have a house full of secret panels, which link to underground tunnels? The most useful of these actually comes out in the back of Thor’s cage in the local zoo. Thor is a gorilla and Ernst uses him as a weapon in his dastardly scheme. Why? Well, I don’t know really. He doesn’t do anything that Ernst’s goon squad couldn’t do. Somehwat inevitably, Thor is played by Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, a man whose entire career consisted of playing cowboys and jumping around in a monkey suit. Thor is actually a fairly frisky fellow and I couldn’t help but think that Corrigan may have been getting his own back on some of the actors, who were literally yanking his chain.

The Monster and the Ape (1945)

‘Just untie me and we’ll see who’s stupid…’

For once, our heroes (the Prof, his beautiful daughter, valet/chauffeur Flash and hunky Ken Morgan) actually get the police involved and they do save the day a couple of times. But, having said that, they are pretty clueless and the patrolmen seem quite happy to take Morgan’s orders, even if he is just the representative of a manufacturing company! Ernst learns our heroes plans by bugging their lab. His method? Have one of his goons dressed as a street sweeper stand outside their window and listen in! Genius.

George MacReady stands out as ice-cold villain Ernst, giving a far more credible performance than the material really deserved. He went on to a long and distinguished career as a character actor, the highlight of which was probably his portrayal of the Brigadier General in Stanley Kubrick’s classic ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957). Robert Lowery, here playing the unstoppable Ken Morgan, went on to become the big screen’s 2nd Batman in the serial ‘Batman and Robin’ (1949).

The biggest downside here is the depiction of Professor Arnold’s dim-witted and cowardly manservant, Flash. Although it was probably a welcome paycheque for black actor Willie Best, it can’t have been pleasant to play a character that stupid, being patronised that much by clever white people. It’s not pleasant to watch and it can’t have been pleasant to play.

Man With Two Lives (1942)

Man_With_Two_Lives_(1942)‘That dog’s heart hasn’t missed a beat in 189 days.’

Doctor Carter is messing with things that man must leave alone in his low rent Frankenstein lab, bringing dead animals back to life by reanimating their hearts. When his assistant dies in a car wreck, he tries the procedure on him. Unfortunately, a vicious gangster is being electrocuted at the exact same moment…

Sparks fly, wheels spin and strange devices crackle and hum in this efficient little programmer from Monogram studios that boasts some decent production values. For once our ‘mad doctor’ isn’t mad at all; he merely seems misguided. As his friend (and the movie’s conscience) points out; he just gives no thought to the ‘creator’s higher plan’. When his assistant returns to life, he’s physically normal but has taken on the gangster’s personality and habits. He shuns his family and friends and is no longer interested in his fiancée, preferring the company of Marlo Dwyer, who scores high as the dead gangster’s moll.

'I've always wondered... why are we wearing our hats indoors?'

‘I’ve always wondered… why are we wearing our hats indoors?’

In the lead role, Edward Norris is equally convincing as the regular guy and the cold hearted killer, racking up the notches on his gun during the crime wave he masterminds. Director Phil Rosen had a career that began in 1915 and carried on until his death in 1951. Along the way, he brought us the Bela Lugosi-East Side Kids mash-up ‘Spooks Run Wild’ (1941) and the awful – but hilarious – ‘Return of the Ape Man’ (1944). He was usually a safe pair of hands though and helmed several entries in Sidney Toler’s ‘Charlie Chan’ series.

Sadly, the ‘Man With Two Lives’ (1942) really blows it all right at the end with a twist so lame that it’s staggering in its very banality. All the good work of the previous hour unravelled with one dumb nod to studio conventions. For shame!