Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In short: Invisible Agent (1942)

1941. German agent Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke), “Japanese” “Baron” Ikito (Peter Lorre, as we all know the most Asian guy in Hollywood at the time, Austria being so very close to China or Japan) and their henchmen have a nice little talk – with assorted introductory torture – about a certain family invention with one Frank Raymond (Jon Hall). Raymond changed his name to Raymond from Griffin, and the film usually calls him the grandson of Frank Griffin, the Invisible Man, even though Frank was the brother of the original Invisible Man. Far be it from me to suggest a Universal movie doesn’t give a crap about even the simplest facts surrounding what came before in a franchise, so let’s just pretend “Grandson of the guy who helped Vincent Price become the second Invisible Man” would be too difficult for the tiny brains of an audience to comprehend.

Anyway, Frank manages to escape the bad guys’ clutches, delivers news of the affair to some kind of military gentleman, declines to deliver the invisibility serum to the US military (because bah, gas chambers, who cares, one can’t help but mentally add), but quickly changes his tune after Pearl Harbour, for once Americans are getting killed moral compunctions aren’t important anymore. However, Frank still has one condition: only a single man shall be treated with the serum, and that man must be him! Because this is a movie, various Allied higher-ups agree with the plan, and quickly, the Invisible Amateur, I mean Agent, is on a mission to Berlin to find out all available information about a coming Japanese/German attack on US soil.

Will he bumble around even worse than you expect the amateur he is to, and risk his invisibility cover on the tiniest of provocations? Will the film awkwardly shuffle between portraying the Nazis as fools even more bumbling than our nominal hero and actually evil? Will Stauffer and Ikito just happen to become involved? Will there be an attractive woman (Ilonay Massey) in the spy business for our hero to romance? Will character actors like Albert Bassermann and J. Edward Bromberg try their best working from a particularly sloppy Curt Siodmak script? You betcha!

Turning a version of the invisible man into a propagandistic war time hero obviously made a lot of sense in 1942, and of course suggests to the excitable mind further movies only made in an alternative reality like “The Wolfman Howls at Himmler” and “Dracula bites Hitler: Perhaps not the best idea”. Alas, what Universal and director Edwin L. Marin deliver here is quite a mess, featuring a hero so incompetent he is threatened even by the most Keystone Koppish of the Nazis, and Nazis the film never can decide are bumbling fools or terrifyingly effective evil. It’s a tonal problem that isn’t helped by the Universal love for bad slapstick, nor by the film’s episodic structure, where single scenes can be quite impressive but no care seems to have been taken with actually turning these scenes into a narrative with a coherent mood. Which of course, war time propaganda or not, does fit perfectly into the way Universal treated its fantastic films after The Wolfman, disposable trash good enough for the peasants to spend their money on but not important enough for the studio to put any effort in.

No comments: