Universal Monsters in Review: Invisible Agent (1942)
OUT OF THE SKY…DROPS…AN INVISIBLE INVADER…TO TERRORIZE AN ENTIRE NATION..ONE MAN AGAINST A NATION ..SPYING.. FIGHTING.. DESTROYING.. STRIKING AT THE VERY HEART OF THE ENEMY! My apologies for writing in “all caps,” but I couldn’t help my enthusiasm. Just watching the trailer alone, my spirit feels jazzed enough to sock ole Hitler in the jaw. Yes. As it would seem, Invisible Agent came to Universal’s lexicon at a very precarious/interesting place in history. The world was once again at war. Pearl Harbor happened less than a year before (December 1941) the release of the film. And perhaps this makes Invisible Agent (July 1942) one of the more interesting footnotes in the Universal Monsters vault as the monster was no longer who we assume; but rather, the “enemy,” which in this instance was Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Invisible Agent is nothing more than a propaganda film, aimed to boost moral of the 1942 wartime audience, and it is hard to ignore some of the starch xenophobia concurrent throughout the movie. BUT we must also remember, Invisible Agent is a product of its time. When looking at historical pieces, we must consider the thoughts and motivations of the era in which the movie was made. For me, I was intrigued, not only because of the historical footnote, but also getting to watch Peter Lorre on screen. Ignoring (for now) the fact that Universal Studios cast an eastern European to play the role of Baron Ikito (a Japanese character), it was still worthwhile being able to watch Mr. Lorre act. He was cool and chilling. And an absolute pleasure. Well, I think I’ve yammered on long enough. Let’s welcome today’s special guest and allow him to bring on that sweet sweet propaganda!
By: Duncan P. Bradshaw
I must confess, that when Mr Flowers provided a list of the films he had left to review, I did the typical thing, and plumped for something I’d never seen before. It was only afterwards, when I read a bit of the background about it, and then, eventually, got my hands on a copy of it, did I wish that I’d taken the blue pill.
Where the previous iterations in the Invisible Man franchise were stories of horror and science fiction, Invisible Agent is a wholly different proposition. It bears H.G. Wells name solely as it was based on his eponymous novel. This film though, is purely a WW2 propaganda film, made to entertain those stuck at home, and to an audience now part of the global war.
Released at the end of July, 1942, it is a mere seven months since the US were attacked at Pearl Harbour. With the need to demonise the Axis powers, in an age which didn’t have 24 hour news channels, or instantaneous reports from the other side of the world, films like this were churned out. Invisible Agent is a rote, by the numbers film, which lacks any real story or plot. Choosing to borrow elements of the mad scientist formula which so many films of that era subscribed to, there are few redeeming features to it.
First off, Jon Hall, who plays the titular character, must’ve been laughing his way to the bank, as he’s on screen for next to no time at all. After being threatened by a Nazi and a Japanese agent, he legs it, with the secret formula in his possession. Naturally, the US government asks, politely, and with no sense of menace at all, if he would share it. This is refused. You blink and literally, the scene fade out has barely finished, when he’s back again, in front of important looking blokes and generals, saying that Pearl Harbour has changed his mind. He’ll do it, damn your eyes, but with one condition, that he is to be the one to be injected.
Right…at no point do they say that he’s a soldier, or some kind of badass, and these people, with national security on the line, are quite happy for him to go behind enemy lines and discover when the Germans are going to attack America. Yeah…that sounds…yeah…
What follows is a paper thin plot, where the Nazi’s are borderline incompetent. They’re only out to usurp their superiors and are easy victims to ridiculous slapstick routines, and chain smoking. Cedric Hardwicke, who plays the main bad dude, Stauffer, has barely finished a cigarette, when he’s using it to light another.
The effects though, given that we’re now rotund on a diet of CGI, is actually pretty good, with one exception. The plane models are awful, you’d have thought that there would be a shedload of stock footage they could have used. Instead you have wobbly wooden planes juddering all over the shop, it’s just odd given the lengths they go to on the invisibility side of things.
Speaking of which, the invisible effects are decent, if a bit predictable. He rocks up in Germany to meet his contact, but hey…how do we know where he is? He’s invisible after all. That’s okay, here have some coffee.
WOOOOOOOOHHHHH, the glass is floating in the air. Wait a minute, he’s drinking the coffee! But it’s not falling onto the floor, it’s magic! Say…I fancy a cigarette, WOOOOOOOHHHH, look a floating cigarette and flaming match. Coupled with chair springs being depressed as he ‘sits’ down, it doesn’t veer too far from the tried and trusted. You can only see the wires a few times, but that is me being picky, overall I thought it was done pretty well, and easily the best thing about the film.
What did annoy me though, was the routine when he meets the female double agent played by Ilona Massey. He’s sweet-talking the pants off her, well, he was watching her get undressed until he wolf-whistled (Worst. Stalker. Ever.), but comedy Nazi number one turns up.
Eager to show the cinema goers what ruthless sods these Germans are, he starts showering her with gifts, plundered from occupied Europe. Though a diet of cheese, chicken, lobster and champagne is going to cause a blockage or two, downstairs, if you get what I’m saying. Cue five minutes of stuff being moved about, chicken being eaten, INVISIBLY, WOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH, and food and drink being tipped over the bearer of gifts.
There is nothing really appealing about any of it to be honest. You’ve got the legendary Peter Lorre completely wasted as Baron Ikito, a Japanese agent. Which, let’s face it, given the backlash against Scarlet Johansen appearing in Ghost In The Shell, would probably create a right storm nowadays. There’s just none of the scares or intrigue that you get from any of the other Invisible Man films, they’ve literally used H.G. Wells good name, slapped it onto an identikit propaganda film, and sent it out into the wild.
He gets plans. People get captured and slapped about a bit, I’m beginning to nod off now, thinking about it. In fact, it would be the equivalent of me telling you how to suck an egg, explaining what happens. Suffice to say, they save the day, escape and get back to blighty. If this film was food, it would be a piece of plain white bread. What’s that? You want some peanut butter on it? NO! Have it dry, I don’t care if you would quite like to have some cheese in there.
So yeah, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed watching it, but…given that my knowledge to date of the franchise stopped with Invisible Man Returns, I can at least say I’ve watched it. Though I can categorically state that I’d not waste eighty more minutes watching it again, I’ll stick to the original thank you very much.
Duncan P. Bradshaw lives in MIGHTY Wiltshire, with his wife Debbie and their two cats, Rafa and Pepe. Their barbershop quartet days may be behind them now, but they can still belt out a mean version of ‘Deepy Dippy’ by Right Said Fred when the mood catches them right. Duncan’s debut novel, zom-com, “Class Three,” was released in November 2014. The first book in the follow-up trilogy, “Class Four: Those Who Survive,” shambled into life in July 2015. Both have received glowing reviews. In early 2016, he released his debut Bizarro novella, “Celebrity Culture”, which has been well received, despite its oddness. Not content with resting on his laurels, Prime Directive blasts off in May 2016, a sci-fi/horror novella which pleased fellow founder J.R. Park. Before the main attraction…Duncan finished writing “Hexagram” in late 2015, a novel set over five hundred years, which follows an ancient ritual and how people throughout the years twist the original purpose to their own end.This is released on July 25th, hold onto your hats for that one.