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Friday, November 9, 2007

Out of Sight, Part 2 (originally published 8/00)

Most of us, at one time or another, have daydreamed about what it would be like to have the power to become invisible. The range of choices that would flow from that remarkable capability can hardly fail to stimulate the imagination. We might choose, for example, to use the ability for the common good, becoming a crime fighter after the fashion of Lamont Cranston's alter ego, "The Shadow." In all likelihood, however, we would sooner or later succumb to the temptation to use our invisibility for less salutary purposes. It would be all too easy to give in to voyeuristic impulses, after all, knowing that there was no chance of being seen. For that matter, considering how easy it would be to elude capture, we might well be tempted to take up a life of crime.

It is this latter, less creditable exploitation of the power of invisibility that is dramatized in the recently released "Hollow Man." As we saw last week, that same approach to the premise has been used before, most notably in Universal's 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells's "The Invisible Man." The success of that film, in turn, kicked off a whole series of Invisible Man films for Universal during the Thirties and Forties, four of which I commended to your attention last week. Here are some additional variations on the theme to look for on video, beginning with yet another title in the Universal series.

"The Invisible Man's Revenge" (1944). Jon Hall appears for the second time in a Universal film as an invisible man, but this is not the same character he played in "Invisible Agent." Here he is a more sinister character, in the tradition of the earlier films of the series. The obligatory mad scientist who provides the invisibility formula is played here by John Carradine, who helps Hall's character take revenge on an English couple who had wronged him some years earlier.

"Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man" (1951). As Universal's long-running cycle of horror films wound down, it seemed that the last stop for each of its stable of monster characters was to feature them in a comedy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The germ of an idea for this film had been used as a final throwaway gag in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), in which the two comics escape from a whole gaggle of monsters only to find themselves trapped on a rowboat with an invisible man. This film expands on the premise, casting Abbott and Costello as private detectives hired to clear Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a prizefighter who has been unjustly accused of murder. As it happens, the uncle of Tommy's fiancee has developed an invisibility formula, which Tommy naturally wants to use on himself in order to gather evidence to prove his innocence.

"Now You See Him, Now You Don't" (1972). Two decades after Abbott and Costello mined the comic potential of the invisible man premise, Disney tried a similar approach. The mad scientist this time is a brilliant and resourceful college student named Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell). Dexter had originally been featured in the successful comedy, "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" (1969). This time he has shaken up Medfield College with his discovery of an invisibility formula.

"Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (1992). Director John Carpenter's comedy-action variation on the theme stars Chevy Chase as Nick Halloway, an average investment banker who meets with an extraordinary fate. Unlike most of the screen's other invisible men, Nick does not willingly become invisible. Instead, he is the victim of an industrial accident, which renders him unseen. A gung-ho CIA operative, played by Sam Neill, wants to recruit him immediately for special operations, but Nick wants none of that. Much of the movie entails Nick's efforts to elude the CIA with the help of his girlfriend, played by Daryl Hannah.

The invisible man premise has also turned up many times on television, including a number of series. The proliferation of these screen progeny of H.G. Wells's novel is remarkable in light of the fact that the lead actor is inevitably consigned to playing scenes in which he or she does not appear. It is a confident actor who is willing to carry scene after scene on the strength of his or her voice alone. If anything, I would have imagined such actors to be a vanishing breed.

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