Invisible Agent (1942, Edwin L. Marin)

Just about an hour into Invisible Agent, Axis allies Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre have a falling out. See, Lorre’s smart, actually, while Hardwicke’s just devious. The film had been establishing those traits from the first scene—when they try to strong-arm the Invisible Man formula out of Jon Hall—but what I didn’t realize was Lorre was supposed to be Japanese. Hardwicke says something about how it works in Germany and Lorre starts talking about his country and I’m like… surely he’s not supposed to be Italian.

Nope. He’s supposed to be Japanese. After the falling out scene, the Japanese embassy in Berlin and its staff become a plot point (of course, Lorre’s the only non-Asian person playing a Japanese person so it’s still uncanny and gross and then also problematic just on the propaganda level). But until then… I was giving Invisible Agent a lot more—okay, maybe not more credit, but I certainly wasn’t cognizant of all its defects. If I ever suffer through again, I’m sure I’ll be all the more punished.

Invisible Agent is one of those bad then worse pictures. Sometimes it’s not terrible, but rarely. The first act, before the film introduces femme fatale Ilona Massey (also bad, but gets worse) shows up, is slightly better than what follows. Maybe because there’s still the potential for something in the first act. The concept—the grandson of the original Invisible Man (Claude Rains in the original, who the second film in the series established murdered hundreds) Hall becomes a spy for the Allies, going to Berlin to find some secrets—does at least have possibilities for good set pieces. But the execution of the concept is quite bad. And gets worse as things go along. When buffoon Nazi J. Edward Bromberg is going his screwball comedy thing, it’s actually surprising how bad Curt Siodmak’s script has gotten over the runtime.

There aren’t any good special effects set pieces. The special effects themselves aren’t bad and are at times even effective—the invisible man stuff is more reliable than the military-related stuff, which occasionally has something like a matte painting at an entirely wrong angle and director Marin and editor Edward Curtiss rely on speeding up the film way too much. But if you don’t see the remnants of Hall’s eyes under the cold cream (he’s caked in it so Massey can see him and they can flirt, or whatever it’s called when actors acting badly perform a poorly written script), it’s pretty impressive. Or impressive enough.

Because Invisible Agent is never enough. Hardwicke being really effective as a pervy old Nazi or Lorre being able to be good in an impossible, bad part are not surprising revelations. If Hall weren’t terrible it’d be enough. If Massey weren’t a combination of bad and lost, it… no, it wouldn’t be enough. Hall’s too bad. Siodmak’s script is too bad.

I hope Invisible Agent proves forgettable. I fear it will not. But I hope it does.

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