Saturday, May 13, 1978: Invisible Agent (1942) / The Crimson Canary (1946)

Synopsis: The grandson of The Invisible Man’s Jack Griffin works in a bookbinder’s shop in Manhattan under the assumed name of Frank Raymond (Jon Hall). He receives an unannounced visit from Nazi agent Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke) and his Japanese counterpart Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre) and their henchmen, who are determined to obtain the Griffin family formula to invisibility. When Frank refuses, the Axis agents try to cut off his fingers in a page cropper, but he escapes.

Frank doesn’t want to give up the secret of invisibility because of the danger to anyone receiving the injection, and he rejects the American military’s appeal for him to give it to them. But after Pearl Harbor he decides he can no longer remain neutral. He tells the American government he still won’t provide them with the formula, but he offers a compromise: he will inject himself with the invisibility serum and go behind German lines to carry out a mission of espionage.

The American officials agree to this, and Frank parachutes into the Third Reich. After finding his contact in Germany, he learns his mission is to obtain the names of Japanese spies operating within the United States, a list which is in the possession of Conrad Stauffer.

Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) is a member of the German resistance Raymond is supposed to work with. She’s also Stauffer’s paramour, but while Stauffer is out of town she is being eagerly courted by the bufoonish Major Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg). Frank decides to play pranks on the hapless Nazi, pulling his chair out from under him as he sits down, spilling drinks on him, and so forth.

When Stauffer returns he suspects Heiser of disloyalty and orders him arrested. Frank steals the list of Japanese agents from Stauffer, then visits Heiser in prison and offers to release him in exchange for information about a planned attack on New York. But before long, Stauffer lures Frank into a trap and drops a net filled with razor-sharp fish hooks on him….

Comments: The Invisible Man was the first and only of Universal’s classic monsters to be pressed into service as a wartime action hero. And in fact, it makes some kind of sense. Invisibility would be a formidable battlefield weapon, and the invisibility formula alone would be enough of a McGuffin to fuel any number of Hitchcockian thrillers.

Invisible Agent is entertaining in a dumb, wartime propaganda sort of way (Nazis are made-to-order villains, after all) and many people seem to enjoy the movie’s comic-book sensibilities. I’ve never been impressed with it, though, for a couple of reasons.

First, the idea that the American government would simply allow Frank to run around with the formula to an invisibility serum and not compel him to give it up is quite silly. You can be sure the U.S. Army would get the formula, one way or another — especially if they thought Nazi agents were in our country trying to get it first.

Second, Frank’s offer to parachute into enemy territory makes no sense. He has no experience or training as a spy; it would be akin to the inventor of Kevlar offering to run a secret mission wearing a bulletproof vest. And considering that the secret of invisibility could potentially be tortured out of him, Frank is literally the last guy you want behind enemy lines.

The whole point to being invisible is that you can sneak around undetected, but Frank constantly calls attention to himself by playing childish pranks — spilling drinks into the laps of Nazi officers, pulling chairs out from under them as they are sitting down, and so on.

Curt Siodmak’s screenplay never lives up to the intriguing story concept but it works all right on its own lowbrow terms, and the movie is regarded as one of the better efforts in the franchise.

Jon Hall is pretty forgettable in the lead role, but the shortage of young male actors in Hollywood during the war gave him a chance to play the Invisible Man not once but twice (he also starred in The Invisible Man’s Revenge). The beautiful Illona Massey gets top billing in this one, and rightly so; tall, beautiful and aristocratic, she stands out here just as she did in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

The supporting players are really quite exceptional. Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre make deliciously evil bad guys. J. Edward Bromberg is also very good as bumbling Nazi officer Heiser.

The Crimson Canary

Synopsis: Danny Brooks (Noah Beery, Jr.) plays the trumpet with a jazz band that tours steadily but is still looking for its big break. Singer and manipulative goodtime girl Anita Lane (Claudia Drake) has been trying to worm her way into the band, but Danny tells her she’s been sowing dissension between the guys — implying that she’s been sleeping with more than one of them — and is not welcome. Anita then tells him that she and drummer Johnny (Danny Morton) are engaged. Danny insists that he won’t allow her to travel with the band, regardless of who she is or isn’t engaged to. She replies that she might call Danny’s girlfriend Jean (Lois Collier) and tell her some old “bedtime stories” about her and Danny. Angry, Danny walks out. As a result of this snub, Anita gives Johnny the cold shoulder, which greatly upsets him. Johnny goes to the bar at the club and begins drinking heavily.

During their set at the club, Danny’s trumpet gets a stuck valve, and he goes to the back room to get a replacement. He resumes playing, but Johnny is soon so drunk he can’t carry on, and staggers off to the back room by himself.

When the band finishes their set, they find Johnny unconscious in the back room, and Anita dead a few feet away, bludgeoned to death by Danny’s trumpet. Unsure of what to do, the band decides to leave immediately for their next tour date and pretend they never saw the body.

A jazz-loving homicide detective (John Litel) is assigned to the case, and he immediately suspects that Danny’s band was involved. The band finds their tour dates have been preemptively cancelled. Johnny decides to turn himself in to the authorities, but Danny argues that someone at the club that night committed the murder and is trying to let Johnny take the fall. He also believes that he knows how to prove that no one in the band was the guilty party….

Comments: Universal’s ambivalence about The Crimson Canary’s subject matter is plain to see on the poster: below the lurid promise of “Rhythm Cults Exposed!” is a blandishment for jazz stars Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford, as well as guitarist Josh White, all of whom are featured in musical numbers during the film.

Big band and swing had been the popular music forms of the war years, but now that the war was over things were changing. Small groups were in fashion, and they were playing new styles of jazz. Bebop was a more challenging, less accessible form of music, pioneered by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others. Jump blues borrowed riffs and hooks from the traditional blues. These forms of jazz were fast-paced and full of nervous energy, well-suited to a nation that was eager to move on after the war years.

The establishment wasn’t ready for these new styles of jazz, just as it wouldn’t be ready for rock n’ roll a decade later. The provocative rhythms and the permissive lifestyles of those who partook in them were seen as suspect. Like rock n’ roll, the racial makeup of the trend-setting artists were problematic as well.

“Race records”, as they were called, had limited appeal to white audiences, and for that reason the black faces delivering the new sound would inevitably be pushed aside by the record companies in favor of white ones. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in The Crimson Canary Danny Brooks and his jazz musician friends are all white — in fact, we never see any black musicians or patrons in the club they work at. It is only in later scenes, when they are on the lam and stop at a jazz club in a different city, that they watch the performances of the black jazz musicians promoted on the movie poster. But these scenes are carefully quarantined from the movie’s plot, presumably so they could be excised from prints playing in the American south — a frequent practice at the time.

The jazz performances from Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford and Josh White are decent, though not of stellar quality; but their music is much better than that recorded for Danny’s band. While I don’t know much about jazz, these numbers aren’t really bebop, sounding more like Dixieland. In any case, it isn’t great music, and the actors don’t try very hard to synch their fingering with the music, presuming they tried at all.

As to the plot — well, Danny’s crew runs from the scene of the crime and then wanders around, wondering what to do. They sneak up to the hotel room of the detective who’s been assigned to the case (Johnny is going to confess) but hear through the door the sound of the very number they recorded live the night of the murder. This gives Danny an idea that the record they made can exonerate them, but their plan comes to nothing when Danny drops the record and breaks it.

There’s a lot of this sort of running around to little effect, and it’s apparently meant to eat up time. It’s not much of a mystery, as it turns out, but Noah Beery, Jr., whom we last saw in the similarly-titled The Cat Creeps, is quite likable as Danny. This is a rare starring role for him, and he makes the most of it, playing Danny as a guy whose first love has always been music, and who never quite grew up. Beery later found fame as Jim Rockford’s dad in the 1970s series The Rockford Files.

Lois Collier also appeared in The Cat Creeps (her seductive pout in the posters of both movies looks quite similar, in fact) and she isn’t any more memorable here than she was in that film.

Claudia Drake is convincing enough as a lure for the guys in Danny’s band, but her obsession with them doesn’t make sense. Why would a relatively sophisticated woman work so hard to worm her way into the good graces of a struggling bunch of jazz musicians? Why not seduce some successful artists instead?

Well, I don’t know much about music, and even less about love. But I do know a little about horror films, and this barely qualifies; but it’s passable fare, and I imagine that the viewers who tuned in to Horror Incorporated on that July night all those years ago were pretty happy with what they saw.

3 comments

  1. The Invisible Agent is one of those movies that haunted me for years. The first time I saw it was not on Horror Incorporated, but rather, Mel Jass’s Matinee movie. Mel’s show came on after Lunch With Casey in the afternoons on Channel 11, and they had the Spook Theater package before Channel 5 and Horror Incorporated. I vividly remember the scene where the Nazi’s had broke the fingers of someone, and them capturing the Invisible Man in a net with fish hooks. As a young kit of 4 or 5, I was traumatized. I turned the TV off. I;m pretty close to 60, but that is a vivid memory of my childhood. Of course, I was also traumatized by the flowers in Little Shop of Horrors, which I also saw thanks to Mel.

    Keep the memories alive!
    Steve

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    • I didn’t know Mel Jass showed this movie, but I guess it’s not surprising. Mel’s Matinee showed everything! Murder mysteries, horror films, sci-fi, Tarzan pictures, anything. What a grab-bag of movies that was. Yes, Lunch With Casey was on at noon ca. 1970 and Mel’s Matinee aired from 1:00 to 3:00 for many years

      Like

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