The Invisible Killer (1939)

The Invisible Killer (1939)‘You’re mixing in something that’s liable to pin back those pretty little pink ears…’

Rival mobsters competing to control a big city gambling racket fall under suspicion when one of them is gunned down. A crusading DA takes one the remaining hoodlums to task, and one of them agrees to turn state’s evidence. However, the mysterious killer strikes again…

A dreary low-budget programmer from bargain-basement PRC Studios that soon outstays its welcome. The title was obviously intended to convey some supernatural, or science fiction, content but this simply does not exist. Director Sam Newfield hides behind the name of Sherman Scott for yet another weak entry in his prolific 217 feature film career; this one being a tired, half-baked mixture of crime thriller and romantic comedy.

Sue Walker (Grace Bradley) is the Gazette’s hotshot crime reporter. She’s even a step ahead of the homicide department led by detectives Lt Jerry Brown (Roland Drew) and Sgt Pat Dugan (Willian Newell). When one of the local crime bosses is knocked off, Drew and Newell race to the scene, only to find they’re behind Bradley, who gleefully swerves through all the city traffic to block them and get there first. It’s all part of the fun because Drew just happens to be her boyfriend. At the scene, she’s allowed to interview suspects and join in with the investigation. Instead of being arrested for dangerous driving and obstructing the police. Only in Hollywood.

The Invisible Killer (1939)

‘Shouldn’t you be covering a flower show or something…?’

The murder is the last straw for crusading DA Richard Sutton (Crane Whitley, billed as Clem Wilenchick) who decides to get tough with organised crime on his patch. The problem is that his intended, Gloria Cunningham (Jean Brooks, billed as Jeanne Kelly) is hanging around with mob mouthpiece Arthur Enslee (Alex Callam) and may be implicated in the rackets. More killings follow and, although guns are fired, death arrives via a poison that is administered in some unknown fashion. How is it done and who will crack the case first; the forces of law and order or the (apparent) only crime reporter in town?

This is a pitiful production in many ways. The story is painfully thin and generic, the action limited to a few drab interiors, and the lighter aspects are bloodless and forced. The relationship between Bradley and Drew seems to be aiming at some kind of screwball comedy, but the rest of the film is so grounded in cheap gangsterisms that both elements fail to convince. Furthermore, Bradley’s character quickly begins to grate with her overbearing, selfish behaviour, sabotaging any chance of audience engagement.

The Invisible Killer (1939)

‘As usual, I’m working with the police on this one…’

The mystery itself is lame, and the killer’s identity reasonably evident from the start. His method of murder is vaguely original (if you want to be kind), but it’s a feeble way to justify the pictures’ title. There’s also some tiresome drunken schtick from David Oliver, who plays Whitley’s butler. Yes, District Attorneys have butlers in PRC’s no-budget world. Also, there’s the little matter of Bradley’s success as a crime reporter, which seems to be based almost entirely on a never-ending series of tip-offs. From almost everyone. Even Detective Newell joins in, even though she’s continuously bad-mouthing the department in her articles. Why do they do it? Well, she never pays for information as far as I can see. Perhaps it’s just her winning personality. Oh, wait…

Newfield’s 42-year career in the canvas chair seldom left the low-budget arena. After making short subjects from 1926, he graduated to features with ‘Reform Girl’ (1933) and never looked back. His crimes against film are many, and it would take too long to list his entire rap sheet here, but special mention must be made of ‘midget’ Western ‘The Terror of Tiny Town’ (1938), ‘Radar Secret Service’ (1950) and ‘Lost Continent’ (1951). In his defence, some of the horror pictures he made for PRC such as ‘The Mad Monster’ (1942)‘Dead Men Walk’ (1942)‘The Black Raven’ (1943) and ‘The Flying Serpent’ (1946) are quite entertaining. However, almost their entire appeal is down to the casting of the wonderfully sinister George Zucco in their leading roles.

The Invisible Killer (1939)

‘Quite honestly, I’d prefer to talk to The Leopard Man.’

Despite a supporting role in the Bing Crosby/Ethel Merman musical comedy ‘Anything Goes’ (1936), Bradley’s career remained stuck in the world of the ‘b’ movie, and she quit in 1944 to look after the professional interests of her long-time husband, William Boyd. His shift as Marshall Hopalong Cassidy lasted almost 20 years and comprised more than 60 movies, a few featuring a young Robert Mitchum, and a 40 episode TV series. Brooks played in a couple of Val Lewton’s notable horrors, including the second female lead in ‘The Leopard Man’ (1943). She also sparred with Tom Conway in a couple of pictures featuring amateur detective The Falcon.

A dire scribble of a film; an underdeveloped assembly-line product of the most uninspired kind.

Torture Ship (1939)

Torture_Ship_(1939)‘Boys, after the grand jury’s decision, I’ll have a statement to make. If making a criminal mind is normal… than I’ll be indicted.’

A doctor experiments on criminals aboard a private ship. His aim is to extract secretions from their endocrine glands and reverse their anti-social tendencies.

This was the first production of PRC (Producers Releasing Company) who were to become a byword for cheap, no budget trash in the 1940s. But some of the elements included here showed there was at least an intent at some level of quality in their early days. For a start the screenplay is based on the first published story of famous author Jack London, although somewhat tenuously it must be said. Also they hired independent director Victor Halperin to helm the picture. He’d achieved global success a mere 5 years before with Bela Lugosi and the strange ‘White Zombie’ (1932), although he had failed to follow it up.

The lead is Lyle Talbot, a respected stage actor, whose film career is now defined by his attendance at the church run by J Edward Reynolds. Reynolds was backing a movie and persuaded Talbot to star. Unfortunately, the director involved was Ed Wood and the film was ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ (1956). The rest of the cast included regular screen bad guy Wheeler Oakman and the wonderful Skelton Knaggs, whose bizarre face was his fortune, gracing many an interesting, if minor, character role.

'Search me... I've been asleep for the first 10 minutes'

‘Search me… I’ve been asleep for the first 10 minutes’

The real problem with looking at ‘Torture Ship’ (1939) is not the cheap sets, poor production values and formulaic script. No, these would be bad enough in themselves but there’s a bigger issue here and it’s not the fault of the original filmmakers. Apparently, the movie originally ran for about an hour but most available prints last roughly 48 minutes. This might not be a problem if the film had been cut professionally but it appears that the first 10 minutes have been simply hacked off! Because of this the film starts with the story already underway and there is no exposition as to how we arrived at that point.

We never really find out exactly who any of these characters are, how this doctor is allowed to experiment on live subjects and why they’re all on a ship. So there is a sense of incoherence and chaos that you never quite lose, although the plot development is simple enough. The full version does still exist but I can’t say I’ll be in a hurry to seek it out. After all, the fact that the first 10 minutes is missing is the most interesting thing about it!

PRC did go on to do a lot worse: ‘The Devil Bat’ (1940) with Lugosi and ‘The Flying Serpent’ (1946) with George Zucco are obvious examples. Occasionally, they came up with something worthwhile such as ‘Bluebeard’ (1944) but such events were few and far between. It’s interesting to see that the studio’s flaws were there right from the start; rushed productions, no budgets and a sorry lack of creativity.

Buy ‘Torture Ship’ here