Much like the various invisible men and women of the H.G. Wells inspired series of films, once 1940’s The Invisible Woman took the franchise into full comedy, the movies were pretty much free to go wherever they pleased. So in 1942, the latest installment saw the newest recipient of a invisible serum decided not to use their powers to hold a city to ransom, solve a crime or kick their shitty boss in the seat of the pants, but instead utilise it to wallop Nazi spies without fear of being spotted.
That’s right: while World War II was a mere two years away from wrapping up, the most versatile branch of the series of films that would go on to be collectively known as the Universal Monsters franchise set its jaw, tightened its bandages and decided to go to war with the Axis powers in the name of liberty and wearing cold cream make up all over its face in order to put the moves a female spy.
Frank Griffin Jr. is the grandson of the original Invisible Man and lives an unassuming life under a false name while running a print shop in Manhattan. However, his life of enforced anonymity comes to a screeching halt one day with a visit from some foreign agents who unsurprisingly want the secret to the invisible serum in order to create transparent soldiers for the motherland. Led by S.S. general Conrad Stauffer and backed up by the alarmingly sinister Baron Ikito (apparently Japanese despite being unfortunately portrayed by Peter Lorre), the group of four thugs threaten to relieve Griffin of his fingers if he doesn’t cough up the info but a quick bout of all-American fisticuffs manages to secure his escape. In the wake of this, the U.S. Government also make (a far more polite) request for the serum, which Griffin actually declines, but the levelling of Pearl Harbour manages to change his mind – on one condition: only he can be the one to take the serum and go on missions.
So, now a see-through spy for the allied forces, Griffin parachutes behind enemy lines to get the names of Stauffer’s undercover spies overseas by hooking up with German espionage agent Maria Sorenson; but he manages to hook up in more ways than one when the two share a spark of romance – something fairly impressive when you consider that he has the complexion if thin air. Things are made even more complicated by the fact that Maria is posing as not only Stauffer’s love interest, but she’s also wooed Heiser, Stauffer’s second in command and because the extended use of the invisibility serum tends to screw with the brain of its recipient – Griffin starts taking unnecessary risks.
While still missing the raw nature of the original movie, Invisible Agent is one of the noticably better Invisible sequels of Universal’s batch of sci-fi thrillers. While the film treads the already well-worn path of many other war films that involve undercover spies sneaking around Nazi occupied villages, the very fact that you can’t see the lead actor makes things surprising novel, even when it means that you get moments where it looks like an angry S.S. general is essentially interrogating a rocking chair.
The movie even takes time to update some of those old special effects tricks and instead of that classic bandaged visage of old, we get the genuinely impressive sight of Griffin forming the outline and contours of his visage with face cream in order to show Marina what he looks like. It still looks pretty decent now so it must have gone down like freaking gangbusters back in ’42.
While there is a distinct lack of threat involved (the Nazis featured are generally as dangerous as those seen in Hogan’s Heroes or ‘Allo ‘Allo), things move swiftly enough also the film does spend quite a bit of time in one location (probably for budget reasons) as Griffin sneaks from room to room of a single house in order to uncover a plot to bomb New York. However, the film eventually finishes incredibly strong with a mad dash to an airfield and the scenes where said airfield is blown to hell actually had me unsure of whether it was done with models or done for real – not bad for 1942.
Any issues the film has a mostly due to the time period it was made – it’s always a pleasure to see Peter Lorre but not made up in glasses as a sinister Japanese spy, however, at least he doesn’t try for an accent (I didn’t even realise he was supposed to be Japanese until he mentions it halfway through the movie) so I suppose that’s something…
The other thing – and it’s not so much a flaw as it is a random musing – is that couldn’t shift the notion that to remain unseen may save fortune on camouflage, but it does mean that Griffin spends the whole movie running around occupied France with his invisible schnitzel flapping in the breeze. Also, in the (relatively) more sympathetic times of the 21st century, it’s bizarre to think that back in those days you could happily make a knockabout sci-fi/comedy set during a war while said war was actually still going on and watch an invisible goof get drunk and fuck with a Nazi while people were actually dying overseas. I mean it’s not like we were subjected to National Lampoon’s Gulf War Vacation or Ernest Goes To Da Nang in later years, but you catch my drift.
While the films are still continuously moving further away from H.G. Wells’ original intentions (we’ve gone from “don’t screw with irresponsible science!” to “irresponsible science is effing AWESOME” in four movies), this attempt at remolding the classic story into something more laidback is easy going fun, even if making an S.S. Officer spill his dinner down his trousers may be a little trite for the horrors of the war…