Horror Is Universal: “Invisible Agent” (1942)

NOTE: This article will contain mentions of sexual assault and a discussion of anti-Japanese racism, both of which may be upsetting to some readers.


What’s the best way to get rid of Nazis? You have to use a Not-See! HA HA HA!

And now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, we can begin.

I didn’t go into Invisible Agent having any preconceived notions of what it would be like. I knew the basic premise and some of the cast members, but that was it. I didn’t know what reputation the film had in modern times, if it had any reputation at all. What I did go into the movie with was a question.

When I’m reviewing these movies, I sometimes like to have a starting question in mind to guide my notes and analysis. In the case of this movie, that question was simple: to what extent, if any, does this count as war propaganda? Finding the answer to that question was a fascinating and complicated process, and trying to explain it will hopefully shed some light on how storytelling can be utilized to sway opinions and reinforce stereotypes.

But first, I need to talk about how bad and weird it is.

The Plot: Knock knock, America, it’s war time! We’re smack dab in the middle of World War 2, with the United States fighting Nazi Germany in Europe and Imperial Japan in the Pacific. The American and British governments believe that Germany is planning a direct attack on American soil, and they’re looking for a secret weapon that could help them discover and foil the enemy’s strategy. And the weapon they need is in the hands of Frank Raymond (Jon Hall), a seemingly innocuous paper maker. See, Frank’s real surname is Griffin: he’s the grandson of the original Invisible Man, and the invisibility serum is still in his possession. Though initially reluctant to let the serum be used again, Frank authorizes its use in the American war effort on one condition: only he gets to be invisible. The serum is administered, and Frank is parachuted down into Germany on a mission to steal Axis secrets. In Berlin, Frank meets up with a glamorous German spy named Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) and makes three powerful enemies: SS lieutenant Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke), Gestapo agent Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg), and Japanese agent Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). Can Frank use his invisibility and his wit to thwart the Axis Powers’ evil schemes? And more importantly, can he set aside his attraction to Maria long enough to get the job done?

To explain how this film came to be, we first need to set the cultural and political scene. The United States formally entered WWII on December 8, 1941, a day after the Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The following months saw several major battles in the Pacific theater, including the Battle of Bataan and the Battle of Midway. To put it bluntly, America was well past the point of being able to ignore the war. In one way or another, it was dominating everyone’s life and American industries. And the film industry was certainly not exempt from that domination.

So, how do genre pictures like Universal’s horror films incorporate the war? What we start to see in the 1940s are movies that blend wartime elements with standard horror/science fiction plots. Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas referred to this phenomenon as an “uncomfortable hybrid” of “horror and propaganda” in their book Universal Horrors. Movies in this vein included non-Universal pictures like King of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies or Black Dragons. A lot of them feel like scripts hastily rewritten to acknowledge current events. It would be established that the villains were working with the Nazis, but the plots would be fairly generic aside from that.

Invisible Agent is a tad more ambitious than these other films because its plot involves direct participation in the war, namely through an espionage mission. That should give it something of an advantage right from the get-go — the operative word being should. Another thing that should help this movie work is that it’s got some decent creative talent behind it. Curt Siodmak is our screenwriter again, and George Waggner is credited as associate producer. Apparently he replaced Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball, who previously produced Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur. Lloyd still did some work on the film, but he wasn’t credited on the final product. Our director this time is Edwin L. Marin, a guy who tended to gravitate towards drama and crime flicks. Ironically, his most famous film is probably the 1937 Judy Garland musical Everybody Sing.

The cast is pretty decent as well. Cedric Hardwicke is back playing another villain, which we know he’s good at. Jon Hall had recently starred in John Ford’s The Hurricane, so he was pretty well-known at the time. Ilona Massey was a Hungarian film and radio star. And then there’s Peter Lorre, of course. What’s he been up to since playing a child murderer? At this point he’s already done two movies with Hitchcock, and he’s had roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He’s also starred in Fox’s Mr. Moto series playing a Japanese detective. Which might explain some of what we are about to encounter in this film.

My point is, this movie sounds decent enough on paper. But then — and I’m not sure exactly where — several things went horribly, hilariously wrong.

Look, nothing about this movie makes any sense. That’s the short version of it. The long version will require us picking apart the whole movie thread by thread, so let’s begin. We need to start by establishing that we’re going to approach this movie as a standalone installment rather than a follow-up to any of the previous Invisible Man movies. That’s because it’s a follow-up in name only, and it’s not clear if the one call-back the script makes is even meant to be a call-back to the 1933 film: they don’t even get the original Griffin’s name right.

So we’re not playing by the rules of the first two movies. That’s fine. But is this movie bothering to set up any rules for itself? You bet it’s not! The first and biggest fundamental flaw in this movie is that it doesn’t make sense even by its own logic. So, the Germans are planning a blitzkreig-style attack on New York. Obviously this is a very big deal, and the Allies need to stop it from happening at all costs. So who do they send on this important, complicated spy mission? Some random dude who owns a print shop and has no formal espionage training whatsoever. I suppose the fact that he changed his name and covered his tracks to some extent is supposed to demonstrate his potential as a spy. But he’s a pretty terrible spy, since both the Allies and the Axis Powers already knew where to find him. And it’s not like he actually knows how to make the invisibility serum, he only has a small sample of it. He really doesn’t have much bargaining power here.

Why does Frank insist on being the only one to use the serum, anyway? The reason is gives is that the serum’s side effects are too dangerous and he wouldn’t want anyone else to fall victim to them. Now that’s a reasonable explanation…or at least, it would be if the serum actually had any dangerous side effects. The serum can’t drive a person insane like it does in the other Invisible Man films. Heck, it doesn’t even give you a craving for alcohol like in The Invisible Woman. The worst thing it seems to do is just give you a mild form of narcolepsy where you gradually fall asleep at inopportune times. I fail to see how this is so dangerous that only the world’s most milquetoast human can withstand its power.

This is where we start running into problems that aren’t necessarily the fault of the filmmakers, however. Instead, they result from the circumstances under which the film is being made. Let me try to explain: when Universal made this movie, World War 2 was still happening, and it was not clear how things were going to turn out yet. So when you’re telling a story about a war that’s currently in progress, and your goal is to keep your audience’s morale high, there are some things that the studio might not be willing or even allowed to do. A story with this setup that also keeps the rules and stakes from the older films would be a solid idea, particularly because of how the serum’s effects manifested in those film. The insanity that Griffin and Radcliffe shared manifested in a specific way, by giving them a feeling of power and superiority and a desire to hurt and control others. When you really break down the stuff they say in those films, it’s not unlike the Nazi ideology. And a good writer could have run with this idea and created a story where a hero’s mind betrays him as he fights to resist the allure of the enemy. It certainly sounds like an idea that would have appealed to Siodmak, who used real-world monsters as inspiration for his fictional monster in The Wolf Man. But I don’t think that idea could have been put on film in 1942, not without being massively unpopular. With few exceptions, Americans didn’t really want to see films where the Axis Powers were a credible threat. They wanted to see America’s enemies depicted as ineffectual buffoons who are easily defeated, because doing that takes away the enemy’s power in the viewer’s mind. And when you wrap your brain around that, you can better understand why Invisible Agent makes the creative choices that it does. Of course, understanding them doesn’t mean we can’t also roast the hell out of them.

Let’s start with Frank Raymond. I refuse to call him Frank Griffin because he does not deserve the coveted title of Griffin, on account of his being a terrible spy and kind of a gross dude in general. This doesn’t come out in full force until he encounters Maria Sorenson, but when he does…oh boy. There’s a good deal of misogyny and mistreatment of women in this movie. The Invisible Woman had some of that as well, but it was also more quick to point out that such behavior was wrong. In this movie, it gets more of a pass, probably because the “hero” is the one responsible for a lot of it. How does the initial meeting between Frank and his love interest go? He sneaks into her room, watches her undress and wolf-whistles at her for extra measure. How delightful. And that’s before he leans over her in bed and kisses her without warning, right after she’d been complaining about all the other men trying to assault her. That’s right, our dashing protagonist is exhibiting the same behavior shown by the rapey Gestapo officers. Hooray!

No actual rape ever happens, of course. But the threat of it keeps flitting in and out of view, especially when the Nazis are around. Two of them in particular have these complicated and kind of twisted relationships with Maria. One, Lieutenant Stauffer, seems like he’s supposed to be her lover, but the movie never clarifies what’s going on with them. The other one is Agent Heiser, who wants to get with Maria and doesn’t want to take no for an answer. When we first meet him, he’s brought a private dinner for Maria and himself and is obviously trying to set up a situation where he can seduce her or demand a favor from her in return. Obviously this isn’t treated as a good thing, because he’s the villain. But the film does try to depict it as being funny, because Heiser is the portly comic relief figure for most of the film. It’s a troubling and baffling creative choice.

The comedy here is subpar even when it’s not potentially offensive. There are occasional clever moments, but the majority of the comedy isn’t that great. It relies mostly on slapstick, as the other Invisible Man films do, but the slapstick here never becomes as over-the-top or impressive as it did in the past. The biggest comedy sequence happens about halfway through the film, when Frank decides to disrupt Heiser and Maria’s dinner party for shits and giggles. Who cares that she’s trying to get important information out of this guy, we need to make some counterproductive mischief! There are a bunch of pacing problems as well. The plot drags its feet until it realizes that it needs to get a move on, so Frank abruptly becomes a genius spy who breaks into Nazi headquarters and destroys valuable documents. Then he becomes incompetent again when the plot needs him to get captured for a while. Still, that part does lead to the film’s greatest moment of unintentional comedy. The filmmakers must have thought we wouldn’t understand if we saw the invisible Frank get caught in a net full of hooks, so they have him actually say stuff like “Oh, I’m caught in a net! The hooks are digging into my skin!”

The thing with the hooks becomes part of yet another problem I have with this movie, which is the weird and disturbing tonal shifts. Fairly lighthearted moments will be interrupted by some legitimately dark moments, and that happens a lot. Frank will be goofing around or flirting with Maria, and then the movie will cut to another spy being interrogated in a scene that looks like it came straight out of M. The German officer tells the guy to sign a paper saying that no physical harm was done to him during his interrogation, to which the guy says that he can’t — physically can’t, because the interrogators broke both his hands. Are we still watching a comedy?

Well, yes and no. Invisible Agent is woefully inconsistent when it comes to how we’re supposed to view the antagonists. It has a delicate and almost impossible balancing act to pull off. The Nazis can’t be made to look too scary, because the film is meant to raise the audience’s spirits and not lower them. But at the same time, they still have to be somewhat threatening — this is a real enemy that we’re fighting, after all. So the Nazis have this weird flip-flop going on where sometimes they’re just buffoons and sometimes they’re actually dangerous. But this only applies to the Nazis. The film’s treatment of the Japanese is a very different story. And this is the aspect of the film that I think will be most interesting to talk about.

Note: “Most incredible story of our time” not actually included.

When WWII enters the story in Invisible Agent, it’s in the form of the Japanese. We see a newspaper article announcing the Pearl Harbor attack, followed by announcements of several other battles, all from the Pacific theater of the war. The Germans are present, but it’s the Japanese who are more dangerous and the more immediate threat. Baron Ikito is a lot more competent and ruthless than either Stauffer or Heiser. He actually manages to capture Frank, for one thing. The net full of hooks is his idea, and at the beginning of the movie, when the villains are trying to get the invisibility serum from Frank, Ikito’s solution is to straight-up torture him. He’s as much of a sadist as the 40s censors would allow, and Peter Lorre plays him as this cold and calculating figure who doesn’t have any patience for human error or emotion.

Now, if you’re looking at this with the knowledge that Americans did see Japan as its more immediate enemy during the war, you can understand why the Japanese are portrayed like this. But that doesn’t excuse the insidious racism on display here.

Fun fact: when I first watched this movie, it wasn’t until close to the end that I realized Peter Lorre’s character was supposed to be Japanese. They had said his name in an early scene, but I missed it because I’d been busy taking notes. There wasn’t anything crazy about his makeup (which I suppose we should be thankful for), and his accent was vague enough that I just assumed he was also supposed to be German. But then he starts talking about how things are done differently in “his country,” and then he actually says he’s going to go meet with the Japanese government about something. That was the point where I went “Wait…oh no.” Suddenly it made more sense why the Germans didn’t respect or trust him, and why his methods were more brutal than theirs. And after that point, the character’s foreignness gets emphasized a lot more. It culminates in his death scene, where he kills Stauffer for “dishonoring” them both, then calmly puts on a kimono and commits seppuku in front of a Buddha statue. It was like the filmmakers thought “What’s the most stereotypical way for this character to die?”

Knowing what the movie is attempting to do in this regard makes it a lot harder to watch, even if you understand why it’s doing that. As far as wartime depictions of the Japanese go, it’s not as overtly hateful as it could have been. But it’s still a deliberate effort to make a particular group of people seem especially creepy and threatening, more so than the other group of villains in the film. So it may not be official war propaganda, but it does have propagandistic elements that were commonplace at the time.

On a more cheerful note, there are some interesting things we can point out here in regards to the film’s special effects. For the most part, the invisibility effects has evolved about as far as they can with this level of technology. So it’s a lot of the same tricks that we’ve already seen: the traveling matte, dissolves, objects floating via strings, etc. But there are a few tricks here that didn’t appear in the earlier movies, or at least weren’t as obviously visible. For example, an early scene uses a split-screen effect in order to pull off a shot of a character handing something to Frank while he’s invisible. And a few later scenes offer a clever little twist on the tradition of wrapping the Invisible Man in bandages to make him visible. To show himself to Maria, Frank grabs a tub of her face cream and smears it all over himself. I’m pretty sure it’s actually grease paint, and he looks like some sort of unfinished clown when he puts it on. But I think the underlying idea was to evoke the bandages look while also making it easier for the actor to emote, and it accomplished that goal reasonably well.

Ultimately, Invisible Agent is a movie that just kind of…exists. It’s difficult to parse out what deeper meanings the film has because that’s not really where its priorities lie. Its main priority is just being simple entertainment, no more and no less. If you take the premise of “an invisible man becomes a WWII spy and fights the Axis” and tell the simplest, most straightforward narrative you could with that premise, this is what you’ll end up with. There are no surprises here.

I think the core problem with Invisible Agent is this: it belongs to a very specific period of history, and it can’t resonate into the modern era like the best of Universal Horror can. What it loses in entertainment value, however, it makes up for in study value. Watching this movie can help give you some idea of how Americans during World War 2 dealt with the war’s omnipresence and how filmmakers responded to the war. But here’s the thing: there are plenty of movies you can watch from this period that help communicate those ideas and are much better made than Invisible Agent. Movies like The Great Dictator, Since You Went Away, the aforementioned Casablanca and many, many others. You don’t have to go far to find the creativity and authenticity that this film sorely lacks. And that’s a shame, because it could have been better. It should have been better, in fact. But you can’t achieve greatness if you never truly aspire to it, can you?

At best, Invisible Agent is a mildly amusing oddity. At worst, it’s a laughably bad mess full of misogyny and racism. The idea of a man using Griffin’s invisibility serum to spy on the Axis Powers is an idea with a lot of potential, but the filmmakers squander that potential by playing it safe at every turn. It hasn’t got the teeth that the first two Invisible Man films do, nor does it have the charm and humor of The Invisible Woman. So the comedy is weak and the narrative stakes are severely reduced, leaving us with a paint-by-numbers story. The occasional moments of decent acting (mainly from Peter Lorre) can’t change the fact that most of the characters are wholly unappealing, including the protagonist. The film’s small amount of entertainment value puts it above something like The Mummy’s Hand, at least. But it can’t really be recommended on its own merits. It’s a disappointing, forgettable dud of a film.

Final Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

We have some significant landmarks in Universal Horror coming up, which I’m looking forward to watching and reviewing. But 1942 isn’t quite done with us yet, and it’s giving us one last hurdle to conquer…

UP NEXT: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

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