(5/10) In 1942 Universal reinvented the invisible man as a Nazi foil in the fourth movie of the franchise. Invisible Agent gets the A movie treatment, as is evident from an A list cast including Cedric Hardwicke, J. Edgar Bromberg and Peter Lorre. As a comedy the film falls flat, but it works better as a spy thriller.
Invisible Agent. 1942, USA. Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Written by Curt Siodmak. Inspired by novel by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, Ilona Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, J. Edgar Bromberg, Albert Bassermann. Produced by Frank Lloyd. IMDb: 6.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A
Invisible Agent is the fourth film in Universal’s Invisible Man series, preceded by the original masterpiece The Invisible Man (1933, review), directed by James Whale, The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review) and The Invisible Woman (1940, review). Author H.G. Wells generally disliked sci-fi films and didn’t often give studios his permission to turn his books into films. In some momentary lapse of reason, though, he did give Universal permission to make an unspecified number of films based on The Invisible Man, released in the late 19th century. Whale’s Invisible Man was one of the few science fiction films he is ever said to have liked during his lifetime, and one can only imagine the socialist author’s agony when the studio’s 1942 movie took his basic premise and turned it into a Pro-American propaganda film.
While the slapstick comedy The Invisible Woman completely disregarded the backstory of the novel and the previous films, Invisible Agent at least pays some homage to it, even if the book’s premise is barely recognisable in the film. Here we are dealing with the original Invisible Man Jack Griffin’s (The Invisible Man) brother Frank Griffin’s (The Invisible Man’s Return) grandson Frank Griffin Jr, who has changed his name to Frank Raymond.
Invisible Agent came out just after the attack on Pearl Harbour, at a time when Hollywood was flinging out propaganda films intended to drum up support for the war effort. Thus the film closely follows the staple formula of an agent parachuting in to an occupied country, or as in this case, Germany, to carry out some secret mission along with the local resistance movement. As a bonus here we also get a romantic subplot and a good dose of slapstick comedy, as well as some nifty special effects.
Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) seems to be running a print shop in an unspecified American town, when one evening a bunch of thugs come crashing in, demanding he give them the formula of his grandfather’s invisibility drug. The leader of the group Conrad Stauffer, a chain-smoking, suave Cedric Hardwicke, and he is flanked by the mild-mannered but sadistic Baron Ikito, a coke bottle-bespectacled Peter Lorre and a few henchmen. The print shop owner Raymond singlehandedly takes out all the baddies in a fistfight and flees to the government, warning them that foreign agents are trying to get hold of the formula, but refuses to hand it over to the government, as he thinks it is too dangerous for anyone to use.
But after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Raymond agrees to letting one agent use the invisibility drug for a raid into Germany to get a hold of information about an upcoming German air raid on the United States, as long as the agent in question is himself. Strangely enough the allied forces’ gathered military brass all think it’s a splendid idea to let this untrained print shop clerk parachute into Nazi territory, take a drug that is known to turn men into power-mad lunatics and find out information vital to the future of the United States he can only get from the Gestapo. Good on you. One medal-covered vaguely European official even says that ”sometimes a passionate man is better than a trained one”, which sort of goes against everything the army teaches you, but hey. It was intended, of course, to motivate the audience to do their part in the war effort, whether it was signing up for conscription or buying war bonds.
And that’s when the actual movie gets going. We get a pretty cool striptease while dangling from a parachute, and soon learn that all the Nazis are bumbling idiots, some with American accents, some with fake German accents. There’s a nod to the scene in the barn in the first film, and in one of the film’s most sympathetic scenes Raymond catches up with his local contact, the old carpenter Arnold Schmidt, beautifully played by Albert Bassermann, one of the few actual Germans in the movie. He is told to make contact with Maria Sorenson, another local resistance worker, played by leggy Hungarian actress Ilona Massey.
What follows is a cavalcade of impressive special effects scenes in Sorenson’s lavish upper-class home, where she wines and dines the local commander, a lovesick buffoon named Karl Heiser, played by the noted character actor J. Edward Bromberg, and his attempts to impress on Sorenson are thwarted by the invisible menace, who goes as far as tipping a whole dining table in his lap, gravy and all. Then there follows some hide and seek in the bedroom with the previously encountered Stauffer, until Heiser gets imprisoned and ordered to be executed, only to be saved by the invisible man, in exchange for the information that the attack on USA begins the same night. The image of the invisible man walking out of the prison hidden behind the high collar of an SS-officer’s coat and hat has since become iconic.
It now becomes a race against the clock for Raymond to fly out of Germany (the print shop clerk secretly had a pilot’s license?) to England to warn the allies. Alas, he is betrayed by Heiser and caught in a net filled with fish hooks and brought to the Japanese embassy, where the hooks are removed by the Japanese surgeon, played by Keye Luke. Like so many times before and after, Chinese-born Luke refuses to put any sort of orientalism into his portrayal. It all comes down to a showdown between the Germans and the Japanese at the embassy.
The script of the film was written by Curt Siodmak, the legendary sci-fi and fantasy writer, best known for creating The Wolf Man (1941) and writing the novel Donovan’s Brain, that became the basis for several credited adaptations and dozens of uncredited ones. Siodmak was a German Jew who fled to Hollywood in the thirties, and wrote The Wolf Man as a parable to his experience as a Jewish man in Hitler’s Europe. While the story of Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr, was moving, Siodmak focuses more on making the Nazis look silly in Invisible Agent. He also makes his hero spout patriotic rants about freedom and democracy whenever he has the chance, and turna him into an obnoxiously handsome, morally superior superman who suddenly went from print clerk to Captain America (which seems to have been an inspiration).
The comedy of the film is occasionally amusing, but mostly dumb and the slapstick is predictable. Most of it also makes Raymond look like a complete idiot. Why on earth does he make himself invisible when he spends half the film trying to draw attention to himself by pulling stupid stunts like stealing food from a Nazi’s plate, lighting cigarette lighters and toppling over wine glasses? Had it not been for Sorensen’s wit and charm, Raymond may actually have sunk the whole mission from the get-go. The film fares better as a spy thriller in the second act, and especially the scene where Raymond sneaks into Heiser’s prison cell and the escape scene work very well.
The acting ranges from passable to good, never reaching excellent. The best performance is probably given by the versatile Bromberg, who exceeds his flatly written character and manages to lend some humanity to his Nazi officer when he is cornered and about to be executed. Paradoxically you end up feeling more for the scared Nazi when the Americana-spouting invisible man confronts him with his pettiness in the prison cell, because the script just lays on the moral with such a heavy ladle. Bromberg was primarily a stage character actor, but did close to 60 films from the thirties to the fifties, and is perhaps best known for his role as Don Luis Quintero in The Mark of Zorro (1938).
Invisible Agent is competently filmed by director Edwin L. Marin, best known at the time for the 1938 version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and who would go on to direct John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle in 1944. There is some impressive aerial photography and the film has a clean, workmanlike style to it. There are even a few pretty impressive action scenes with petrol trucks tumbling over and exploding, some car chases and big fight scenes, but one suspects that noted action director Frank Lloyd, here as producer, stepped in during the big action scenes. The Wolf Man producer/director George Waggner served as associate producer.
As far as the special effects go, the film probably has the most impressive effects since the original invisible man film, made by the same man, special effects legend John P. Fulton. One of the most effective scenes even have him soaping up his invisible body in the bathtub. We see his lathery leg appear out of thin air, perhaps as a nod to Virginia Bruce’s famous stocking scene in Invisible Woman. There’s a lot of invisible dressing and undressing, which must have been painstaking to film, if the stories from the previous films are anything to go by. This is also the first film in which we can actually see the invisible man’s face when he is invisible. He chooses to reveal himself to Sorenson by coating his face ans hands with white cold cream. From a woman’s makeup drawer he chooses cold cream, perhaps because her skin foundation, sort of suitable for the job at hand, may not be quite masculine enough for a male hero. There’s a pretty cool scene where he applies the cream and his face becomes visible. Unfortunately the effect is ruined by the fact that the audience already knows exactly what he looks like. And there’s also a slight problems that appeared in all five of Universal’s invisible man films – in scenes with brightly lit uniform backgrounds, the black body suit tended to be visible as a fuzzy silhouette.
Once again we find most of the usual suspects from the Universal horror team aboard: composer Hans Salter providing yet another effective but ultimately forgettable score, art director Jack Otterson and set decorator Russell A. Gausman, costume designer Vera West and occasional special effects director David S. Horsley, who tended to do the other effects while Fulton and his team concentrated on the invisibility. Prolific stuntman Eddie Parker, who had just burned to his death as the Frankenstein monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), is revived to fall another day. Cinematographer Lester White is best known for filming a few Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone.
The film received mixed reviews upon its release. Critic “T.S.” at The New York Times was called the film in bad taste, as it “blithely mingles gauche attempts at comic satire with melodramatic sadism”. In his opinion it was “downright dangerous” to “reduce the facts of the war to the level of a comic strip”. Kate Cameron at The New York Daily News, on the other hand, thought the film was “amusing and exciting” and gave it 2,5/5 stars.
Modern reviews are likewise mixed, but all tend to group the film fairly tightly between 4/10 and 7/10. At the lower end are publications like AllMovie and Foster on Film, with Bruce Eder writing that “the film has the tone and mood of a very flaccid comedy spiced up with some amazing special effects”. Matthew Foster thinks that “Although the comedy falls flat, once the film finally becomes a war thriller, it delivers”.
On the other side of the spectrum is J.P. Roscoe of Basement Rejects, giving the movie 6.5/10 stars, and Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews, which gives Invisible Agent a full 7/10 stars. Davidson writes: “Invisible Agent is a worthy installment in Universal Studios’ The Invisible Man series. For those who enjoy espionage films set during World War II, this one will not disappoint.”
Film historian Tom Weaver in his book Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946 writes: “Invisible Agent may be a maddeningly uneven film but it’s still a fast-moving and entertaining package. One is swept along by its enthusiasm and its pacing, and occasional powerful passages. But the film is built on a silly premise and there are juvenile digressions to spare. The film doesn’t do any great service to H.G. Wells but could be enjoyed as an interesting artefact of the war years.”
Invisible Agent has an annoying episodic feel to it, and the geography feels fuzzy at best. We mostly jump-cut from one location to another without much sense of how the characters get there, or where ”there” really is. One scene seldom seems to have much consequence for the next and vice versa, and much of the plot is unravelled through lucky deus-ex-machinas. The comedy is predictable and forced for most of the time, but the spy thriller elements hold up slightly better.
One could, if one was so inclined, also bring up the somewhat sketchy way in which Invisible Agent disregards previously established rules about how the invisibility drug works. We’ll disregard the fact that all rules were broken in Invisible Woman, since that was a screwball comedy. First of all, there’s the rather central premise of the first two films that the serum drives the user insane. In Invisible Agent Griffin explains that he “knows how the serum works”, and thus can counteract the effects. But this doesn’t make sense, as Vincent Price’s character in Invisible Man Returns also knew how the serum worked, and this did nothing to help him. In Invisible Agent Siodmak instead cooks up the idea that the serum brings on bouts of narcolepsy, something that the second film toyed with, but which has no basis either in the novel or in the firs film. And then there’s the fact that the film disregards the fact that any food or drink digested by the invisible man would turn up as floating mush in mid-air. Frank Griffin eats chicken and drinks champagne in front of the Nazi officers without any problems. These are not issues that are problematic so much for the film as a standalone work, but taking in the whole mythos of the invisible man, this seems like sloppy and careless screenwriting — not that this is any major surprise where Curt Siodmak is involved.
Jon Hall is best when he is invisible, as he has quite a commanding voice, although he is not quite a voice actor in the league of Claude Rains or Vincent Price, nor even Virginia Bruce in The Invisible Woman. Hall was one of the young male actors of Hollywood who benefited from the fact that much of the industry’s cream was serving in the war. He emerged as an athletic and handsome leading man in 1937 with John Ford’s Oscar-winning film The Hurricane, and got his second star turn in 1940 as Kit Carson. His mother was a Tahitian princess, and the ancestry lent him a dark look, and back in the day, this was enough to garner you roles in whatever ethnicity you needed for a film apart from Caucasian. Hall played a Polynesian in The Hurricane and starred as the hero Haroun al-Bashid in Arabian Nights in 1942, his best remembered film, and as Ali Baba two years later, as well as in a number films as African, Middle-Eastern, Polynesian or South-American. Hall is one of those acting nobilities to have played Robin Hood, albeit in a Columbia film called Prince of Thieves in 1948, more or less forgotten today. He returned to the role as the invisible man in The Invisible Man’s Revenge in 1944, although playing a different invisible man this time, making him the only actor in the original Universal series to play the role twice.
Casting Hungarian-born Peter Lorre as Japanese Baron Ikito may seem utterly strange to a modern viewer, as he doesn’t look Asian in the least. But for some reason Lorre played a lot of Asians, and at the time starred with much success as the Chinese detective Mr. Moto in an ongoing series of films. His slight frame and subdued manner, as well as his googly-eyes, apparently made him viable for roles as Asian characters. Lorre is really the star of the movie, as he does his character with such a cold lack of empathy and sadism, avoiding the worst ethnic clichés.
The nationalities of the villains do create some confusion in the beginning of the film when the baddies come tumbling into Raymond’s shop without ever explaining who they are. Raymond simply knows that Cedric Hardwicke’s character Stauffer is German, despite the fact that he never mentions it, and speaks with an impeccable British accent. It actually took me two thirds of the film to figure out that Lorre’s character’s name was Baron Ikito and he was supposed to be Japanese. In the beginning he just looks like a slimy European thug, and the notion that he is Japanese isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the filmmakers stick him in shots alongside actual Asian actors, making him look helplessly Caucasian. And, for the record, the Japanese feudal system never included ”barons”.
Ilona Massey was a Hungarian-born actress who was touted as ”the second Marlene Dietrich” in the forties, and the tall blonde had a string of successes in B films in the early forties, but her career quickly dwindled and she turned to TV in the fifties, and had something of a successful career as a radio show host. She even got her own TV show, The Ilona Massey Show, in 1954. Massey has a certain ballsy charm as the independent Sorenson (why a German girl would be called Sorenson is anyone’s guess), but is slightly stiff in her role.
Albert Bassermann was a noted German stage actor who also appeared in close to 50 films between 1913 and 1938. The ageing actor came to Hollywood in 1939 with his family, and despite his age of 72 and despite knowing little English, he soon was able to carve out a decent second career as a character actor in Tinseltown. He appeared in 25 pictures between 1940 and 1948, and even made a triumphant return to the German stage after the war. He passed away in 1952. In Invisible Agent he shines as the kindly carpenter who is surprised by the invisible guest, and refuses to divulge his secret even while being tortured by the Nazis, a role which must have been close to heart, despite the silliness of the film.
In a small bit-part we see Milburn Stone, famous as the beloved Doc Adams in the classic TV series Gunsmoke (1955-1975), a role for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Before that he had a prolific, albeit anonymous, career as a B movie bit-part player and supporting actor, including films like Captive Wild Woman (1943) and Invaders from Mars (1953). Keye Luke may be best known to modern audience as Grandfather Wing, the owner of the curio shop that sells Billy Peltzer’s father Gizmo in Gremlins (1984), or indeed as the old master of the TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. But he had a long and enduring career that involved a lot of sci-fi.
In conclusion, one could argue that The Invisible Man avoided ever sinking to the Z-movie depths that Frankenstein or Dracula did at Universal, as even Invisible Woman, the film in the series that is generally considered the worst, is a pretty decent screwball comedy. Invisible Agent could have benefited from a stronger screenwriter than Curt Siodmak, but even at his worst Siodmak knew how to entertain, and this is far from his worst. Technically Invisible Agent is well made, the acting is good across the board and Edwin L. Marin directs with style and confidence. It’s a propaganda piece, but Siodmak wisely holds back on the worst pro-American jingoism, even if the critique against the Nazis sometimes takes on Plan 9 From Outer Space childishness: “stupid, stupid, stupid!”.
Invisible Agent. 1942, USA. Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Written by Curt Siodmak. Inspired by the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, Ilona Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, J. Edgar Bromberg, Albert Bassermann, Johl Litel, Herbert Holmes, Keye Luke, Donald Curtis. Milburn Stone. Cinematography: Lester White. Music: Hans J. Salter. Editing: Edward Curtiss. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Sound direction: Edward B. Brown. Special effects: David S. Horsley. Visual effects: John P. Fulton, Roswell A. Hoffmann. Stunts: Eddie Parker. Produced by Frank Lloyd for Universal.