One thing I love about the Invisible Man movies, at least in comparison to the other Universal Horrors of the 1930's and 40's, is that Universal was never afraid to play around with the formula. The first sequel makes its invisible man more sympathetic and adds a layer of mystery, while the second sequel is a situational comedy with a woman turning invisible. The third entry, which is the subject of today's review, is a wartime spy thriller with an invisible American spy sent behind enemy lines to stop an imminent attack on New York. I can't help but applaud the versatility of the subject, and though Invisible Agent was the highest grossing film in the entire original franchise, I also can't help but point out its various flaws.
Let's start with the good things, though, which aside from the cleverness of the underlying premise and the special effects (more on them later), can be summed up in two words: Hardwicke and Lorre. Sir Cecil Hardwicke plays the Oxford-educated Gestapo Gruppenführer Conrad Stauffer, a cunning and ruthless intelligence officer who is determined to get his hands on the invisibility formula. Stauffer is no baffoon, being smarter and more careful than the actual hero, and Hardwicke walks a fine line between subtlety and hamminess to create a perfectly realized villain. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre plays Baron Ikito, a Japanese intelligence operative who figures out that the humble print shop owner Frank Raymond is actually Frank Griffin, the grandson of the original invisible man. While certain socially-conscience contemporary viewers may be put off by a Hungarian-American playing a Japanese man (though I doubt they'd be as upset about the English Hardwicke playing a purebred German), Lorre is absolutely perfect in the role: stoic, patient, and surprisingly honorable to the last.
The rest of the cast is fairly average, with Jon Hall as the titular Griffin in what is a vanilla hero of the early forties. His character is incredibly foolish and borderline incompetent, which can be explained away by his inexperience as a spy and/or the lingering effects of the serum (the latter of which never come into play), but the story and acting make it pretty hard to root for him, since the vast majority of the conflict is a result of his sabotaging his own mission and bumbling into obvious traps. To play opposite him as Maria--an apparently German mistress for Stauffer but secretly another American spy--is Ilona Massey, who is clearly disinterested in the movie she's in, as evidenced not only by her by-the-numbers performance but also by her own admission in real life interviews.
These two are brilliant
The last actor I want to talk about, J. Edward Bromberg, portrays the character that best exemplifies the film's major flaw. This is Gestapo Standartenführer Karl Heiser, a goofy, powermad fool who is trying to move in on Stauffer's job and his woman. When Heiser is introduced, he is used as the butt of a series of tonally awkward slapstick gags in which Griffin plays around with him and ultimately upends a table full of food onto his lap, at precisely the moment the Stardartenführer was about to monologue all the information Griffin was sent there to retrieve.
I can appreciate the need, in 1942, for a German to be made a fool, for American audiences to laugh at the very thing they fear most. However, given the stakes and the set-up, it doesn't make much narrative sense. Coming to this scene so early in the movie, one might conclude that the rest of the film will play out like a spy movie farce or a full-on comedy, with an inept but likable agent having fun with his invisibility and the consequences never being more than an embarrassed but ultimately impotent German Gestapo agent putting his love interest under house arrest. But that's not how the movie plays out.
A single character shouldn't represent hate, pathos, irredeemable villainy, and comic relief within the same genre flick
In fact, there are, interspersed within the simplistic spy intrigue and action setpieces, a few downright grisly moments that remind you of the horrors of the war, which was fully underway when this film was released. For instance, there's a scene where Stauffer has finished torturing an old man that had helped Griffin and is demanding he sign a paper saying he hadn't actually been tortured. The old man can't sign, of course, because all of his fingers have been broken. Stauffer then tells his henchmen to take the old man away, no doubt to be shot. It seems so out of sync with the rest of the film that it comes across as more upsetting than if it had been in a full-on war picture, and it ultimately serves no narrative purpose aside from removing a used-up character from the plot.
There's more than just that scene that throws the film into a twitchy mess of tone and style, but sufficed to say, it's a movie that can't seem to decide if it wants to be serious or silly, if it wants to utilize its wartime setting to its fullest horrific potential or if it wants to distract audiences by poking fun at the war going on across the oceans. It's a movie that has both daffy pratfalls and onscreen suicide within minutes of each other, and it makes it hard to know what the movie wants audiences to feel.
A movie monster this guy is most certainly not
But rather than end my review on such a sour note, let's discuss the special effects, which are outstanding, another incremental advance over its predecessors. Particularly noteworthy are the bathing scene and the sequence in which Griffin applies make-up to his hands and face. These are almost seamless, and they are complimented by gags with less visible wires and more attention to the natural movements of objects being carried by an actual person. Great care was taken to ensure that the invisible Griffin carries objects where he normally would given his height, and they bounce with his steps rather than dangle from simple puppetry. (There is a scene with a smoke-filled room in which Griffin remains invisible, though, which feels like a bizarre oversight from both the script and the effects team.)
Don't get me wrong. Despite its flaws, Invisible Agent is an enjoyable ride, if you can accept its tonal unevenness. Hardwicke and Lorre are at the tops of their respective games, and I would recommend the movie even if it only followed their characters and didn't have anything to do with invisibility. The effects are brilliant, and for what its worth, audiences absolutely adored it in its day, so much so that the franchise would continue two years later with Jon Hall returning (as a very different invisible man). I guess that means I'll have to review The Invisible Man's Revenge next week.
-e. magill 3/11/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: