Invisible Killer, The (1939)

US / 61 minutes / bw / Producers Pictures Corporation Dir: Sherman Scott Scr: Joseph O’Donnell Story: Carter Wayne Cine: Jack Greenhalgh Cast: Grace Bradley, Roland Drew, Jeanne Kelly, David Oliver, William Newell, Boyd Irwin, Clen (sic) Wilenchick, Frank Coletti, Sidney Grayler, Alex Callam, Harry Worth.

Lt. Jerry Brown (Drew) and his fiancée, Evening Gazette crime reporter Sue Walker (Bradley), are in competition to solve a series of murders among the city’s gambling syndicates; Jerry may have the power of the PD behind him, but Sue has a network of contacts so wide that it even includes Jerry’s sidekick, Det. Sgt. Pat Dugan (Newell).

After the latest murder, of racketeer Jimmy Clark, the syndicate boss Lefty Ross (Grayler) agrees to do a deal with DA Richard Sutton (Wilenchick), trading information on the other syndicates—and on the mysterious figure who’s behind them all—for a safe passage out of town. But, soon after Ross arrives at Sutton’s house to spill the beans, he receives a phonecall; as he takes it in Sutton’s study, two shots ring out and he’s found dead, two bullets through his heart. The autopsy reveals that the bullets aren’t what killed him: somehow the wily killer cleverly poisoned him before the bullets struck! Moreover, exhumations of earlier victims show that they too were poisoned before being shot.

DA Sutton is dating Gloria Cunningham (Kelly), whose father (Irwin), a leading citizen and anti-gambling crusader, is mortified when Sue digs up that his realty company is leasing most of the properties that are being used as gambling joints. He gives the goods on one such property, the 59th Club, run by Vani Martin (Coletti), to Sutton. Sue goes to the club and spots Gloria two-timing her fiancé there with prominent but sleazebag attorney Arthur Enslee (Callam), who’s lawyer to not just the mob but Cunningham himself. Sue helps Gloria slip away just as the raid starts.

Cunningham, who has accompanied the cops on the raid, instructs his shyster Enslee to shut down all the other casinos that are operating out of Cunningham-owned properties. As Cunningham tries to phone Sutton from the club, he chokes and promptly dies. Sue sees this, suspects the phone, uproots it from the wall, and hurries with it to police headquarters and Jerry; hoods try to gun her down en route, but she perseveres and, on examination, the phone’s mouthpiece proves to contain a poison-gas capsule—an “invisible killer”!

There’s more, but that gives enough of a flavor. Comic relief is offered by Oliver as Sutton’s drunken valet—and wannabe novelist—Llewellyn Worcester.

Producers Pictures Corporation (PDC) would soon morph into the infamous Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), which is in fact credited at the end. Even by PRC standards this is fairly poor; just a few years later, thanks to the new style that would come to be called film noir, even shoestring outfits like PRC could hope to make occasional fine movies, even if only by accident, but that time was not yet. It’s never explained why the killer should use the poison-capsule technique and then also gun the victims down; if the shootings were to camouflage the use of the cunning poison widget, why bother using the poison widget at all?

Some sources credit the movie’s inspiration as a novel by Carter Wayne called Murder for Millions; if such a novel exists, the Library of Congress has failed to hear of it. (Murder for Millions by Nancy Rutledge, serialized much later, in 1949, in the Saturday Evening Post is obviously unrelated.) Other sources attribute the story, despite the credit to Carter Wayne in the movie itself, to the prolific Maxwell Shane, specifically to a tale of his named “The Fox and the Hound”; again, there’s no evidence that such a story by Shane exists, although it’s perfectly conceivable that the enigmatic Carter Wayne was a Shane pseudonym. Director “Sherman Scott” was in fact Sam Newfield. Sources variously give the producer credit to Ben Judell, who owned PDC (and rapidly ran it into the ground), and to director Newfield’s brother Sigmund Neufeld. The slightly cut version that I watched has no producer credit.

Time hasn’t aided what was anyway no masterpiece. Jerry’s catchphrase when referring to his beloved is “I’d like to break that girl’s neck!” And at one point, addressing her, he demonstrates his understanding of the female psyche: “You know this end of the newspaper racket’s no place for a woman. First thing you know you’ll end up on a slab in the morgue.” As the pair go into their final clinch, Sue cries that she’s indeed quitting journalism . . . to be a wife instead.

On The Invisible Killer

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