Written by Curt Siodmak
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Starring Jon Hall, Ilona Massey, Peter Lorre, Cedric Hardwicke
US Release ex: Aug. 7, 1942
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)
Finally, there’s an invisibility movie with a true purpose: spying on Nazi Germany! Considering that Invisible Agent (1942) was a wartime propaganda production and part of Hollywood’s effort to boost morale on the home front, it’s pretty amazing that it tried to fit the story into Universal Monsters continuity at all, especially when The Invisible Woman (1940) did not. The movie begins with Frank Griffin’s grandson (Jon Hall) acting as keeper of the formula.
Understandably, it’s a formula that everyone wants… the Germans, the Japanese and the Americans. But Frank’s grandson, using an alias, Frank Raymond, claims there’d never be a reason to use it again. That is, until headlines start spinning following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He’ll let the United States take advantage of invisibility, but only if he’s the one to actually use it. Soon, he’s travelling from London to Berlin to meet with another agent.
The invisibility effects have improved with this movie. There’s a terrific scene where Frank undresses as he’s parachuting to the ground. Later, so that he can give another agent an idea of what he looks like, he smears cold cream over his face. It’s fun to watch it subsequently come off with nothing underneath the wiped spots… literally nothing. Moving objects also look more realistic than before, less like things sliding along fishing lines.
I quite liked Invisible Agent. It’s simultaneously more serious than The Invisible Woman, yet more soundly funny. I guess that’s because the humor is more literate, not just slapstick. For example, the foreign agent asks Frank if he’s insane. He replies, “No, just transparent. You wouldn’t call a window insane.” All right, that may not be everyone’s sense of humor, but I laughed at it. At least it wasn’t followed by a pratfall.
For the first time, there’s also joy in someone being invisible, without fear that the subject is going to go insane or how they’re going to become visible again. It’s actually a lot of fun. And the story clips along at a quick pace, covering a lot of ground in its 81 minutes. I daresay there’s even some real suspense as Frank takes it upon himself to stop Hitler’s planned air attack of New York City. I don’t know if that would have even been possible at the time, but it makes for a great story.
The villains aren’t portrayed as the nincompoops you’d think they’d be in a movie like this, except for Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg), the victim of Frank’s dinnertime pranks. He’d like to think he’s got the ear of the Fuhrer himself, but has probably never even been in the same room. Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke) is more serious, but Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre) is the best as the Japanese agent involved in the quest for the formula. (This was his only Universal Monsters appearance.)
However, there are some perpetuations of stereotypes that we’d frown upon today, although would have probably gotten the troops revved up back then. About the Germans: “They treat women like dogs; I hate them.” About the Japanese: “I can’t tell you Japs apart, but that voice (Lorre’s) haunts me.” Regardless of the genre, Invisible Agent is an interesting period piece that may not reveal much serious information about World War II, but speaks volumes about American attitudes during it.