Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"The Invisible Monster"; Republic, 1950

My favorite type of fiction hero is the private detective; Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, Mike Shayne, Mike Hammer, Peter Chambers, Spenser, V.I. Warshawski, I love 'em all. The tough talking, the giving as good as you get from thugs, the constant badgering from cops, nothing beats a P. I., not super heroes, secret agents, jungle lords or intergalactic anti-heroes.

Serials have always skirted around the P.I. genre. The Green Archer (1940) had an insurance investigator helped by a masked hero. The Masked Marvel (1943) had four insurance investigators with war time clearance, one of which was a masked hero. The Black Widow (1947) had a mystery writer hired by a newspaper to solve a murder as a circulation stunt. But then we have The Invisible Monster (1950), which I think is the closest the serial ever came to doing a straight P. I. story, the sci-fi powers of the title character not withstanding.

The Phantom Ruler (Stanley Price) smuggles four men into the country under the pretext of making them U. S, citizens. In reality he has plans for them to help him in his attempt to make an invisible army to take over the world as soon as he gets enough money together. He renames the chemist Long (George Meeker), the locksmith Martin (Dale Van Sickel), the lawyer Hunter (Douglas Evans), and the engineer Miller (John Hamilton). They will either do as he wants or get shipped back to their own dictatorial countries and a certain death.

Getting Martin a job at a safe company, PR is giving a key to a newly installed vault door. Using his special cloak, which is treated with a chemical that makes it invisible under a special ultra violet light, PM pulls of a flawless robbery.

The bank is a client of the Apex Insurance Company. Company head Warren Madison (Edward Keene) calls in his ace investigator Lane Carson (Richard Webb). Madison teams Lane with a new member of the firm Carol Richards (Aline Towne). Lane is all full of macho posturing about a woman's role in criminal investigation until Carol shows that in the short time she has been on the case, she has tracked down Martin as the inside man on the robbery; much to Lane's chagrin and Madison's amusement. Properly chastised, Lane takes Carol with him to interview Martin.

They pull up to his rooming house in time to see Martin being taken away by Burton (Lane Bradford), PR's number one henchman. They follw the two men to a house outside of town. Lane leaves Carol in the car as “backup” and goes to talk to Martin. His tough talking attitude causes Burton to jump Lane and the three men trash the room before Burton runs for it but Martin is caught.

Martin is taken to Madison's office where he cracks like a raw egg after the first question. Before he can tell anything of major importance, Martin is shot by PR from the fire escape. Lane can find nothing outside the window, except a truck on the street below (it holds the lamp that makes PR invisible. Obviously the killer must be in the building. A quick search leaves Lane and Carol baffled.

The two investigators return to Martin's rooming house, where Lane surprises Burton and his partner Harris (John Crawford) who were emptying the house of anything that might lead to them. The two thugs run for it and Lane hops in his car for a hot pursuit. Lane's driving skills prove to be better than Burton's until Harris lobs a few grenades at the other car. To avoid being blown to pieces, Lane veers off the road and gets stuck in a ditch.

To keep the chase from being a total loss Lane takes some of the grenade pieces back to the office to have them examined. They contained Nitroline, which is only produced by the Alton Chemical Company. Lane goes over there where he meets Long. The man's nervous behavior makes Lane supicious. Panicked, Long knocks out Lane and runs for it.

Lane has the company's inventory checked and finds a supply of acid missing. He plants a small amount of radioactive material in the remaining acid containers, then he an Carol drive aound with a radiation detector. Sure enough PR uses his trick robes to steal some more acid. He gives it to Burton to deliver to Long.

Lane follows the trail to a house where Long has set up a vault door to test the acid on. Carol enters the house on the pretext of being lost so that Lane can sneak in the back door. Lane gets the drop on everybody but Harris knocks the gun from his hand with a thrown beecker and a fight breaks out with Carol wrestling with Long while Lane bruises his knuckles on Burton's and Harris' chins. Carol gets knocked out and falls behind the vault door. The acid container is knocked over and eats through the brace holding up the door. Lane stops fighting to save Carol from being crushed while all the bad guys hit the street.

Since bank jobs are getting to hot for the gang, PR changes tactics. He has Hunter tell him of any new mergers happening through the law office where he is working. Apex is merging with Amalgamated Fidelity. PR sends Madison a letter demanding $50,000 or he will annouce the pending merger to the public, causing the controling stock Madison needs to purchase to triple in price, which could kill the whole deal.

Lane's not one to cave to blackmail and gets Madison to agree on his plan to trap the blackmailers. Lane plants a dummy package at the drop sight, then hides and watches. PR's truck pulls up and a work man comes out of the back, pretending to do a weld job on the nearby lamp post while PR retrieves the money. Lane is curious about what kind of welding job takes less than a minute and examines it after the truck leaves. Nothing was done to the lamp post and the envelope is gone. Lane heads after the truck.

PR finds the package empty and realizes they are in a trap. He has Harris drive into the mountains. Spotting Lane behind them, Burton shoots at him, hitting one of the car's tires. Lane is not so easily stopped. Knowing the truck has to take a switchback, Lane cuts across the mountain on foot and jumps on top of the truck. He falls through the canvas tarp and is captured.

PR takes Lane to a parking garage where he forces him to write a ransom demand for his safety. Lane tosses away their pen but agrees only after a gun is pointed at his nose. But he is smarter than the villains as he meerly wanted to use his own pen, which contains invisible ink in the opposite end. He puts a special message to Carol at the bottom of the note.

Maddison recieves the letter and takes it to Carol. Recognizing Lane's pen, she brings out the hidden message which gives the address of the storage garage where they are holding him. Madison and Carol snap into action and call the building's security office.

Back at the storage garage Lane is being loaded into the car they are taking to pick up the ransom. Just then a security guard (Dave Sharpe) shows up looking for Lane. A shoot out erupts and Lane tries to use the confusion to escape in the car. Burton spots this and tosses a monkey wrench at Lane. Lane is knocked unconscious and the car crashes though a wall and falls several stories into the ocean. Luckily Lane survives the fall, revived by the cold water he swims to shore. Apex's merger goes through without a hitch.

PR is upset over the loss of the ransom money but he can't worry about that right now. He is running out of the illegal chemical that allows him to become invisible. All other plans are put on hold until a new supply can be smuggled into the country.

Despite being a late era serial it is one of the more solidly constructed serials Republic put out. It contains a tight script, good action sequences, and the stock footage isn't “too” noticeable for the most part. Once you get past the patently absurd central idea, The Invisible Monster is a good serial.

Ah yeah, that central idea. While it probably sounded good on paper the execution of a man who can turn invisible under a light is laughably impractical. The image of Lane Bradford constantly manipulating a large lamp on rollers to keep the cloaked villain in the beam is ludicrous, especially when he has to turn it off once the man enters a building, since the light can't penetrate walls. So it is only there to make his entrances and exits unseen.

The high point of these is in Chapter One when he kills a confederate from a fire escape. The sight of a floating gun always works for me, even when you can see the strings. Once you get use to idea of the limited invisibilty (I'm not even going go into the ridiculous image Stanely Price paints of his invisible army sweeping across the country while men follow them with lamps) it is all but dumped after Chapter Three as they run out of the chemical that causes the effect and spend most of the rest of the serial trying to get more, saving the effect for the final episodes where they pull off a pretty decent armored car robbery.

While the invisibilty gimmicks are put aside the serial works well as a detective action piece. The heroes follow clues stupidily left behind by the crooks so that they constantly figure out their next move and another fist fight can erupt. The serial is chock full of perils. I llike how in the middle of episodes the hero will be put into peril, escape, and then get involved with the cliffhanger. My favorite none cliffhanger peril has him trapped in a basement of a burning house. Using a pocket knife, the hero prys out one of the boards in the wall of the basement and crawls out though the building's crawlspace. Quick, efficient, and clever; leaving him plenty of time to get involved in the stock footage cliffhanger just around the corner.

The acting is above par. Richard Webb comes the closest to being a real P. I. the serials ever had; with his snappy delivery of lines in that deep voice he has, the aggressive stance he takes in confrontation scenes, the snap brim of his fedora down low over his eyes. He is one tough customer.

Aline Towne in her first serial is given her best part in the genre. Her introduction where

she continually interrupts Webb, demonstrating that she has already done the work he condescendingly implied was too tough for her. Her smug delivery mixed with Webb's growing irritation is topped by Keene's broadening smile at Webb's discomfort in the scene. Though after that great introduction Towne is pushed into the back seat for most of the action scenes, she gets to show off a little in several shoot outs, taking turns with Webb to fire around corners, and even saves the day by raming a bunch of explosives with her car in Chapter Seven (Okay it's really footage from The Masked Marvel, but it's still pretty exciting).

Lane Bradford and John Crawford are standard henchman, tough and viscious. Crawford does gets a stand out scene in Chapter Eleven. Webb is knocked out and Crawford whips out a knife, thunks it into a box near Webb's head and says” Use that on him, it won't make any noise.” It's a great moment of villainy that Crawford snarls in a nasty tone. Other than that he is mostly just following Bradford, who is the “centered” henchman, unruffled by anything. When a plan fails Bradford meerly shrugs and turns to the boss to find out what's next. During fights while Crawford is grimacing up a storm, Bradford is almost serenely calm, givng him a coldblooded appearance scarier than any invisble tricks the FX depart does.

Stanely Price, after two decades of small henchman and stool pigeon roles gets to play the big bad guy and he looks like he is having the time of his life. Price relishes every closeup as he smilingly contemplates his villainous actions. He snarls at his men venomously at their failures. Sneers at the heroes when he gets the upper hand. And most amazingly of all never goes over the top, always finding the right balance between comic book menace and campy burleseque. He grounds the absurdity of the serial into a palatable reality.

But the serial is stolen by George Meeker. He plays that rare breed in the genre. The reluctant henchman. He really doesn't want to be a bad guy but finds he has little choice. Not wanting to get into fights he never the less does, with a certain amount of hestitancy thoughout the proceedings. Always scared and nervous, he stammers and shakes during tense scenes and cowers continually under the villain's contemptuous treatment toward him. The only time Meeker ever seems calm or unafraid is when he is working with chemicals, as if only here he is truly his own person. A great performance from a very underated actor.

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