INVISIBLE GHOST. Monogram, 1941. Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire, Clarence Muse, and Betty Compson. Written by Helen Martin and Al Martin. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Not a good movie by any means, but a better one than you might expect, thanks to some subtle work at the margins by Director Lewis and writer Helen Martin.

   Reviewers who tackle this one describe the plot as indescribable, then go on and try to describe it, so instead of that, I’ll just give a quick description:

   As the story opens, Middle-aged Charles Kessler (The writers seem not to have noticed that Lugosi was Hungarian.) sits in his big lonely mansion, still pining for his absent wife (Compson) who ran off years ago with his best friend. It turns out though that she didn’t run very far; Bela’s bosom buddy was killed in a car crash that gave his wife (Betty Compson) amnesia, and for years she has secretly lived somewhere about the grounds, hidden and cared for by the gardener (?!) lo these many years.

   It also seems that from time to time the Mad Missus gets out of the cellar to go lurking around the yard, and whenever Kessler sees her, it puts him in a hypnotic trance and he gotta go out and kill somebody.

   Got that?

   Okay, so like I say, as the story starts there have been maybe a half-dozen murders in and around the Kessler Manse, and we get another one pretty quick – a maid who was once involved with Ralph (John McGuire), the boyfriend of Kessler’s daughter; surprisingly, the writers hint very subtly that she may have been pregnant with his child.

   At any rate, Kessler strangles her, Ralph gets convicted of her murder (Déjà-vu for McGuire, who suffered a similar fate in Stranger on the 3rd Floor the previous year.) and is executed, whereupon his twin brother (also McGuire) turns up chez Kessler to find out whodunit.

   At this point the writers have strained logic and credulity well beyond the breaking point, so I won’t detail any more plot, but I will say that there are glimmers of real creativity in this mess.

   Joseph H. Lewis was a director who could be counted on to add style to anything he worked on, from The Singing Outlaw (1937) to the legendary Gun Crazy (1950), and while he can’t do anything with the leaden illogic of the story, he throws in some flashy camera angles and lighting effects, and actually gets a very naturalistic performance out of Lugosi when he’s not killing anyone — I like Bela, but underplaying was never his forte.

   Even more remarkably marginal is the butler Evans, played by Clarence Muse. Muse was one of the few black actors of his time who brought dignity to every role he had, and he delivers it here with assurance. Whether chiding the (white) maid for gossiping about their employers, or just shooting a knowing look when the cops start interrogating him, he projects an intelligence far above the plot at hand.

   Part of this may have been the co-writing of Helen Martin. I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but IMDB identifies her as the same Helen Martin who helped found the American Negro Theater and appeared on Orson Welles’ stage production of Native Son before going on to a lengthy career as a character actress in films and television.

   This would fit. Clarence Muse himself was a Black Activist and helped found the Harlem Lafayette Theater about the same time Martin was working with Welles. And the writing and playing of his Black Servant part is far more intelligent and subtle than any other comparable part in the movies of its time.

   To see what I mean, you have only to consider the scene where he encounters John McGuire as the dead man’s twin and speculate on how skilled comic performers like Mantan Moreland or Willie Best would have handled it. Then look at how Muse does it: a subtle double-take, then he calmly announces the visitor, walks calmly to the kitchen and quietly asks the cook, ”Do I look pale?”

   Moments like this aren’t enough to keep Invisible Ghost from being a very bad film indeed, but they help make it a very memorable one anyway.