Invisible Ghost is surprisingly good, but The Gorilla is bes
Daniel Jolley | Shelby, North Carolina USA | 06/11/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Bela Lugosi was compelled to make a number of poor films during his down and out years, but 1941's Invisible Ghost should not be counted among them. While this is the first of Bela's infamous "Monogram Nine," it's actually a pretty interesting film, and one that allows Bela's star power to shine in several of its many facets. This talented actor could be quite the charmer in the right cinematic environment, as he proved in Dracula, and the role of Charles Kessler in Invisible Ghost provided him with an opportunity to showcase the warm, genteel aspect of his nature alongside the legendary horror prowess that made him famous. Of course, Kessler's a little bit odd - he does, after all, enjoy a serious dinner with his wife on the anniversary of their marriage, despite the fact that he has not seen her since she left him (and supposedly died) several years earlier - but he's a most sympathetic character with a wonderful daughter, a respected position in the community, and a most amiable personal nature.
Unfortunately, Kessler's home is quickly becoming a house of horrors. The first victim is the new maid, and her death complicates matters a great deal. We the viewers know who killed her because we watched the murder as it happened. Circumstantial evidence, however, leads the cops to charge Ralph Dickson (John McGuire), who just so happens to be the serious boyfriend of Kessler's daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young), with this murder most foul. As additional murders follow, you can only wonder who will be next and when the authorities will figure out what we already know - the true identity of the murderer. You might think that your foreordained knowledge of the murderer would make Invisible Ghost a boring affair, but it really doesn't - largely thanks to Bela Lugosi's incredible performance (and a certain plot point I found rather shocking).
Joseph H. Lewis also deserves a lot of credit for making this film rise above its B-movie origins. As director, he maintains the gloomy atmosphere throughout, and he also gives us some unusual but wonderfully effective camera angles - including a truly memorable one through the flames of a fireplace. The lighting also wonderfully accentuates the whole effect of several Bela Lugosi close-ups (and no one has ever done close-ups like Bela Lugosi did). I will go so far as to tell you the butler didn't do it, but said butler (played by Clarence Muse) deserves special mention, as well. Rather than serve as stereotypical grist for the Hollywood mill, this African-American character was presented with seriousness and respect - quite a rarity for films of this particular era.
It's just unfortunate that the rest of Lugosi's films for Monogram lacked the kind of script and talent Invisible Ghost provided - this first of Lugosi's "Monogram Nine" is far and away the best of the lot. I would place this high on the second tier of Lugosi's most impressive performances.
The Gorilla, however, does not do much to warm the cockles of any Bela Lugosi fan's heart. Not only does it assign Lugosi a secondary role, it's just not a very good film.
As much a comedy as a murder mystery, it's more of a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers and their slapstick antics. Most folks say that this was a bad vehicle for the comedy trio and that they really could deliver laughs aplenty, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. I've never seen the Ritz Brothers in anything before, but you'd have to have a really big funny bone to find much humor in all the bumbling around you'll find here.
Since this story, based on a play from the 1920s, had already been brought to cinematic life twice already, somebody at 20th Century Fox decided to bring in the Ritz Brothers and play it for laughs as much as suspense. Actually, there isn't all that much suspense to begin with. Some killer calling himself "the Gorilla" has been murdering folks all over town, making the cops look pretty inept in the process (since he tends to warn his intended victim a full 24 hours in advance). The latest target is Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill), a fairly well-to-do guy who, we learn, happens to be heavily in debt. His niece (and co-beneficiary of Stevens' brother's will) Norma (Anita Louise) and her beau Jack Marsden (Edward Norris) just so happen to be on hand for the occasion, which has prompted Stevens to hire the Ritz Brothers to protect him. As the appointed hour approaches, there are plenty of wall-tapping, secret room-hopping shenanigans throwing the intrepid detectives off, and - wouldn't you just know it? - a real gorilla has escaped and headed right for the Stevens estate.
The Gorilla is an incredibly average film. It's certainly watchable, but nothing all that interesting or humorous ever happens. The main draw of the film today is the presence of Bela Lugosi as Stevens' butler. It's rather sad to watch such a talented actor as Lugosi play such a subordinate role in a film, but - as always - he steps up and delivers in a big way, despite the banality of the movie as a whole. Besides Lugosi, I think Lionel Atwill is quite a fine actor, but the most memorable player in this whole droll affair is Patsy Kelly, who plays Stevens' maid. She eventually becomes rather annoying due to her proclivity for delivering more and more one-liners as her general state of fear increases, but she's about the only character on hand with a discernible spark of life in her.
Horror and comedy can only bond effectively in the most special of circumstances, and the formula really just doesn't work in The Gorilla. Bela Lugosi certainly deserved better, and I can only hope that others are correct in saying that the Ritz Brothers were actually funny in some of their other films."