#11 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The Invisible Man franchise seems to be the most malleable of the Universal Monsters. Frankenstein is about a specific set of ideas. Dracula is about a specific character and type of horror. The Mummy is built around setting. The Invisible Man, however, is built around a concept. It can be used for comedy like in The Invisible Woman or a revenge tale like The Invisible Man Returns or psychological terror like in the original film. The idea of using the concept in a wartime thriller feels like a great way to use the concept in a new way. It’s not great at it, struggling to get our characters into the right place to get the action moving, but once it’s there, it uses the concept quite well.
Frank Griffin (Jon Hall) is the grandson of the original invisible man and has a vial of the serum hidden away as he leads a life as a small printer under another name when some German agents led by Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke) and accompanied by the Japanese agent Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). Griffin gets away, runs to the US government, and promises his services with the invisibility serum after the outbreak of war. They decide to send him into Germany to figure out the secret date of Hitler’s plan to attack America. This grandiose plan that Griffin gets sent into is silly, and I really think the film would have been helped with something smaller and more focused, like he needs to find the location of an ammunitions manufacturing plant, or the identity of a spy the Department of War believes is in their ranks (this probably wouldn’t have gone over well with the DOW in 1942, so scratch that).
The effort to get Frank into Germany involves a drop from a plane with him turning invisible during the drop while the Germans on the ground watch the man disappear. This doesn’t make strategic sense (drop him away from the lights and don’t make a demonstration of the invisibility in front of the enemy), but it’s an excuse for special effects, and it’s at least good special effects. He meets the local contact who sends him to Maria (Ilona Massey), a woman with close ties to the upper echelon of the Gestapo. This is where the film firmly becomes a comedy in the vein of The Invisible Woman with Frank making a fool of Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg), a high-ranking member of the Gestapo who has romantic desires regarding Maria. It’s decent comedy with overall pretty strong special effects (certainly better than the extremely obvious wires evident in The Invisible Woman), but it’s not really the promise I expected from a spy adventure in this franchise.
It was about this time that I got up to make some popcorn, and I played out the rest of the film in my head. It was just going to be lightly comedic spy fun. When I got back and pushed play again, though, the film actually moved in the direction that I had been hoping for. That happened with the reappearance of Stauffer. The comedic in nature Heiser is suddenly pushed aside for the more focused and cruel Stauffer who figures out that the invisible man is around and that it’s Frank Griffin just by talking with Heiser for a few minutes. It becomes a cat and mouse game between the two. It’s limited to a handful of sets (Universal was not putting a lot of money into these movies anymore), but it’s effective.
It really evolves into a tense game of wits that actually ends up having three sides when Baron Ikito manages to capture Frank to use him for Japan’s purposes, essentially turning on his allies. It’s a ratcheting up of tension and stakes that works in the film’s favor. It also allows Frank to use his invisibility in a spy context, which is well done.
The film ends on a happy note, which feels off and I would have probably preferred an outright propaganda ending like in Man Hunt (not that it would have been great). My ideal ending would have included the madness of the serum that gets addressed early and never mentioned again, with Frank perhaps losing his mind on the way to deliver the information he’s gathered. Maybe an open-ended finale where it’s questionable whether he can actually get there in time before he completely loses it? Just a nice ending where the guy and the girl end up together just feels wrong.
Still, as an overall package, Invisible Agent works through a light and cluttered opening to deliver some pretty solid spy stuff later that fully utilizes the concept of an invisible man as well as delivering some quality special effects. The direction by Edwin Marin is mostly centered around the special effects, and that’s handled well, while the script by Curt Siodmak is far more effective than his previous work on The Invisible Man Returns. It’s a nice move in an interesting direction after the dull repetition of The Ghost of Frankenstein.