[Creepy Crypts] 'Invisible Agent' Mixed Universal Horror and Wartime Propaganda for an Oddly Charming Concoction
Welcome to our column Creepy Crypts, in which our writers exhume the old, the forgotten, and the long dead horror some of us have forgotten...until now...
...Invisible Agent (1942) opens shortly before America’s entry into World War II. Frank Griffin Jr (Jon Hall), grandson of the Invisible Man, is visited by a group of Axis agents seeking to get hold of the invisibility formula. They go away empty-handed, however, and so once Pearl Harbour is attacked Griffin is able to do his patriotic duty and become an invisible agent. His mission is to spy on the Germans and sabotage their plans—but can his beautiful German contact Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) really be trusted?
Directed by Edwin L. Main and written by Curt Siodmak, Invisible Agent marks the Invisible Man cycle’s entry into World War II. The conflict in Europe had a few echoes in the second film in the series, 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns, where Vincent Price’s insanity was signified by him talking like a fascist dictator; but this fourth entry was produced after Pearl Harbour and pits the latest Invisible Man directly against Nazi Germany.
In the process, it marks still another shift in genre for the series. The original Invisible Man was campy Gothic science fiction; the second a wronged-man crime melodrama; and then came the breezy comedy of The Invisible Woman. Invisible Agent, meanwhile, is best described as an early prototype of the superhero films we all know today, with the gift of invisibility given to a good-hearted hero (the earlier films’ notion that invisible men inevitably become criminal maniacs is abandoned) who uses his great power with great responsibility to thwart various dastardly villains.
Not that the film’s genre is ever particularly stable, as the past modes of horror, melodrama, and comedy frequently segue back into view. The prologue to Invisible Agent is a grisly affair in which the still-visible Griffin has his hands placed under a paper-cutting guillotine by his Axis interrogators, but once the action reaches Germany the film quickly becomes a farce. One sequence has Maria trying to hide an inebriated Griffin as he plays slapstick pranks on a visiting Nazi; an almost identical set-up had been used, albeit without Nazism, as one of the comedic set-pieces in The Invisible Woman. The film later slips back into horror, the most harrowing sequence being one in which an elderly carpenter—who previously lent aid to Griffin—has his hands broken by Nazis.
It has to be admitted that the plot holding these different genre elements together could have been stronger. One of the weakest elements is the main character—as an agent, invisibility is really all Frank Griffin has going for him. The aforementioned Nazi-pranking sequence makes Griffin look about as competent as Lou Costello: he gets drunk while visiting his contact, plays a series of tricks that ultimately alert the Nazis to his presence in the country, and when alone with Maria he covers his face in cream to regain visibility and then takes a nap right where the Gestapo can find him.
More interesting than the hero are the film’s Axis villains: it’s worth noting that screenwriter Curt Siodmak was a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany before the war, and so knew a thing or two about the real-life evils he was depicting. The central antagonist is Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke), an icily methodical and Oxford-educated Nazi who pontificates on the evils of “decadent democracy” in his BBC Radio-worthy English accent. His lackey Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg) is a more complex character: sometimes a bumbling oaf (he’s the butt of the jokes in the invisible prank sequence) and other times a more imposing villain. He’s also cast as the victim in one of the film’s more horrific sequences, where Griffin visits an incarcerated Heiser in his Expressionistic cell, the Invisible Agent’s disembodied voice taking on the role of the Nazi’s long-abandoned conscience.
And then we have Peter Lorre, who plays the Japanese agent Baron Ikido. At the time the film was made, Hollywood laboured under the bizarre delusion that Peter Lorre could be passed off as Japanese: he had starred in eight Mr. Moto films before taking on the role of Ikido, where his racebent portrayal manages to be, if anything, even less convincing. There’s a touch of wartime racism about this character—our hero Griffin quips that he can only identify Peter Lorre by his voice because all Japanese people look the same—but fans of the actor will enjoy seeing Lorre doing what Lorre does best. In an example of horror put to the purpose of propaganda, all three villains arrive at gruesome deaths.
Invisible Agent remains something of an oddity, one whose weaknesses add to its charm. Universal horror and wartime propaganda are not the most obvious bedfellows, but this film manages to mix them to better effect than might have been expected.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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