#18 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
Building off of the surprise financial success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as well as the comedic stinger at the end of it, Universal took a script for a straight sequel in the Invisible Man series and inserted the Abbott and Costello personalities into it. The combination is an uncomfortable one where the movie never embraces the madcap energy of the first entry and it also ends up feeling like its embracing the conventions of the horror series too seriously on a character level to work comfortably with the comedy that is there. What ends up coming together is a bit of a mishmash of styles and tones that entertain here and there but coalesce unconvincingly.
Lou (Costello) and Bud (Abbott) are graduating from a night school for detectives, eager to get their first case and get things moving on their new careers. Their first night on the job in a small detective agency sees some action when the boxer, Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), who is wanted for the murder of his manager, shows up in their office and tries to hire them. An interesting tidbit from this is that where Costello was the complete boob in Frankenstein, unable to see the obvious right in front of his face, with Abbott trying to convince him of what’s going on, it’s actually the opposite here. Lou figures out that Tommy is the one the radio is talking about with warnings, but Bud doesn’t see it. It’s amusing.
Anyway, Tommy gets the pair to take them to the house of his girl Helen (Nancy Guild) and her uncle Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir) who is working on the invisibility formula (complete with nod to Claude Rains as the original invisible man). The serum works except for that madness part, and Dr. Gray wants to figure out the cure before he injects anyone with it, knowing what has happened before. Previous entries in the franchise have completely ignored the madness aspect (The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent, in particular), so if this one had I wouldn’t have been surprised. Much like The Invisible Woman, this is a comedy, and the madness could easily be eluded narratively. Embracing it fully seems like a leftover from the original script, and the seriousness that the film ends up treating it in certain scenes is where the film clashes with the comedy most fully.
Anyway, Tommy injects himself to save himself from the police. We get a lot of interactions between Bud and Lou with the police, mostly Detective Roberts (William Frawley) and the psychiatrist Dr. Turner (Paul Maxey) who both think that Lou is crazy for saying he say Tommy turn invisible. The movie is funniest with the psychiatrist and Lou accidentally hypnotizing people, and I was ready for the film to really ramp up with the comedy. Instead, it turned into a mob sports picture.
Revenge has been the plot of two of the previous entries (The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Man’s Revenge), and seeing it appear a third time is disappointing. The concept of an invisible man is more than just one formula or set of characters, allowing for the greatest latitude in what kinds of stories can be told with the idea, and that Charles Lamont and his scriptwriting team went back to that revenge well once again, even in the middle of a comedy, is dispiriting. Oh well, how does it deal with it?
Well, first, in order to get to it, Lou has to pretend to be a great boxer while Tommy hits people nearby while invisible. One display at a gym somehow gets him a match with one of the big, up and coming boxers of the arena, Rocky (John Daheim), and then the action focuses on a restaurant in a hotel because Lou needs to get in contact with Morgan (Sheldon Leanard), the mob boss who ordered the hit on Tommy’s manager. This involves an attractive woman, Boots Marsden (Adele Jergens), cozying up to Lou, getting him to agree to take a dive and, hopefully, talk about the hit. As a side note, the whole motive around trying to convince Lou to take a dive doesn’t make sense since no one seems to think he’ll win and he’s not favored in the betting. I guess getting him to last five rounds would be something unexpected, but if he’s not favored, wouldn’t the big money be on him winning? Whatever.
Tommy gets drunk in the restaurant. There are some good sight gags as he steals food from the two detectives and drinks from people throughout the bar (complete with bartender and waiter guffawing at everything), and it ends with Bud and Lou having to carry an unconscious and still invisible Tommy out of the bar with Detective Roberts looking on with more guffaws.
The movie ends with the big fight, and it’s amusing as Tommy comes and goes to handle his own affairs or help Lou along. It’s a balance that is carefully constructed but doesn’t have the kind of madcap energy that I think it really needs. Undercurrent to everything is the very real character concern that Tommy is going insane. Things get resolved, and we get a weirdly funny stinger of body horror.
The internal narrative conflict of types of stories and tones at play undermine a lot of this effort. It never gets as deliriously silly as I feel like Abbott and Costello are geared for, and the dramatic aspects are either too heavy or distract from the escalating comedy that should be taking place. It ends up feeling lethargic through long sections, which is not great for a comedy. However, the two stars do everything they can. The psychiatrist stuff is really good. The special effects around the invisible man are pretty solid (though not the best of the series). Eh. It’s a mix.