Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – Propaganda: Invisible Agent

Editor’s Note: I am posting this from St. Lucia and will not get home until late next Wednesday so please forgive the fact that these will probably be shorter, less well researched, and posted irregularly. I also can’t promise a theme most nights since most of the horror I’m bringing with me is from my Universal Horror boxset so there won’t be as much variety.

10/20/2017 – Propaganda: Invisible Agent (1942)
Directed by Edwin L. Marin

Film is an incredibly effective tool. It can make you laugh, cry, tense, scared, or countless other emotions. It can also affect the way you look at the world and your own personal beliefs. In the right hands, this can be used to sway an audience on a mass scale and even rewrite history. Sometimes this is rather inoffensive in the form of biopics and historical films which change a small fact and often sticks in a person’s mind as being accurate. Sometimes those very same films can cause a lot more damage as in the case of films like Gone with the Wind that have propagated a belief that the pre-Civil War South was a nice kindly place where slaves didn’t have it so bad and the Northerners were vicious marauders.

The problem with describing a film as propaganda is that frequently this is used by one side as an insult to the other. While this is acceptable and obvious in films like one of the earliest accepted propaganda films, Birth of a Nation which turned the KKK into heroes and African-Americans into a representation of all that is evil and lazy, which like Gone with the Wind, the portrayals help infect the national consciousness long after everyone involved in making it has thankfully died.

It’s also easy when the film is sponsored by the government to persuade the national consciousness to one side. While this got its start in WWI, it was the Soviets who first pioneered this with the films of Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin and October. The Nazis, while easily the most famous in their production of propaganda thanks to Joseph Goebbels, were far from the only ones doing it. Yes they produced Triumph of the Will, Olympia, and The Eternal Jew as truly scummy “documentaries” meant to convince those at home and abroad that their way was right and true, but let’s not pretend that the US wasn’t all about this too.

There were the documentaries produced by John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens (read or watch Five Came Back for more though I feel the miniseries wasn’t as informative as I’d like in part because I knew much of it already) which didn’t even disguise their efforts to show the Allies as amazing and the Axis as the ultimate evil (not a hard task admittedly considering the atrocities committed especially by Germany and Japan). There were also all those Disney and Warner Bros cartoons that likewise didn’t shy away from racism towards Japan or simply mocking other nations to inspire. Then there were all the dramatic films like Casablanca which may not have been financed by the government, but were still heavily under its thumb and which were badly disguised propaganda which sought to glorify those who fight. UK films of the era tended to be more patriotic than trying to convince the public Germany was evil but they were just as guilty or this with Alfred Hitchcock himself helming a pair of them.

While the end of World War II didn’t bring as end to the propaganda film, it brought a relative end to the clear-cut nature of such films. What was once a fairly open effort by governments or done by influence on Hollywood, took to mean something different. Propaganda became less of a tool for relativistic good, but instead and insult and a thin line. There were still state sponsored films being made, but for the most part, this became an accusation at the people behind the film that they were being dishonest (which I have seen films where I agree and disagree with the message but both lied to get to that point) or misrepresenting facts (likewise).

For example, The Green Berets was a misguided film that got the support of the military to try and change opinion on the Vietnam War. It also originated in the hands of a private citizen. It certainly feels like propaganda but has that just come to mean “something espousing a view we disagree” or even “something espousing a view” or does it have to have that governmental tie? At what point does an untruth in a historical work move from “artistic license” to “intentionally propaganda”?

These are all interesting questions that have no real place in a horror review column concerning the fourth film in the Invisible Man series that had quickly moved from the great (The Invisible Man) to the solid (The Invisible Man Returns) to the disappointing (The Invisible Woman) as it moved further from its horror roots. You’ll notice none of the films in my brief history of propaganda films is even horror making this a very tissue thin veneer of a topic.

I’m not even going to touch the “Why Are So Many Horror Films Christian Propaganda?” that dominates the search for “horror propaganda films” except to say that yes it is annoying some things about it but it is a delicate balance between inherent conservatism in horror, laziness, and because the films that influenced and were behind so many subgenres were heavily tied to Christianity (see vampires and exorcism films) as opposed to anything malicious. I do think that Invisible Agent stands as one of the few is because of horror’s low status in the public eye and because if a country wants to scare us, what better than the “truth”. There were a ton of mad scientist films with the Nazis as the villains, but they typically didn’t break out until after the war ended and it was revealed that they basically already existed.

Invisible Agent does bill itself at least as a sequel to the original in broad strokes. A group of five men approach the grandson of the original invisible man looking for the drug his grandfather created. They come supporting the Axis efforts with Cedric Hardwicke representing Germany and the decidedly non-Asian Peter Lorre representing Japan. While I don’t approve of the casting, there’s no denying Lorre’s talent and I love his contempt to the German’s intelligence and skill as he actually seems far more talented and I’m really glad they didn’t seem to try to make him seem Asian in accent or physicality. Oddly it reminded me of 1941 and not just because I just saw that mediocre Spielberg documentary.

He refuses to help them especially (showing a surprising amount of anti-German sentiment for a pre-war American) and saying that no one should have it. He escapes with the formula and then the American government asks for the same thing which he sticks to his morals and denies like the principal man he is. Like anytime war is declared, he immediately throws out his morals with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and volunteers to be the sole test subject and titular invisible agent. This would be a perfect chance to show that power corrupts as has long been the theme of this series but nope, all the madness is gone and now he’s just a straight do-gooder and a goofy superhero.

He parachutes in and turns invisible, running about naked, which is surprisingly played for laughs. Surprising merely because this series has often played coy (considering the Hays Code unsurprisingly) that the title character is running about with his willy out. It is not surprising because it is clear from the outset that they are going for a light comedic tone in line with the previous entry. It feels more like Hold That Ghost than The Invisible Man which seems to presage their eventual team up in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. The effects by now are tried but true and I have no complaints. It’s the same team still and it is all nice and routine.

Our agent meets with a woman who has worked hard to gain the interest of a high-ranking Nazi to find a list of Axis spies. Apparently, Hitler is planning to invade America (later revealed to be through New York). Thanks to him being the worst agent ever, he only cocks up her mission and essentially gives himself and his relation to her away, he the blows her cover even further by losing his disguise and making himself visible via makeup and clothes. There’s absolutely no point to any of his actions besides to enable the plot and to show off a bunch of lame shots where they emphasize their effects work. Even when he’s able to steal the list but it feels more like dumb luck then skill. Even when he is able to sneak into and free the Nazi from his cell who the woman had been trying to gain the confidence of he still gets caught.

He is caught by Lorre who is only beaten largely because of the stupidity of the Germans which I think may make this the most positive portrayal of the Japanese until Die Hard. SPOILERS There are vague attempts to make the woman seem like possibly a double agent but the film refuses to commit to this and it seems like this is something that only the world’s dumbest agent believes. She saves him as he passes out in the air over British territory which proves her loyalty and that she is a British agent. Is it supposed to be a twist that she is actually a British agent undercover? I’m not saying that I guessed the twist, just that I’m genuinely surprised there was even any doubt. Also I get that the male and female protagonists always end up together, but all he did was repeatedly mess up her efforts, doubt her loyalties incessantly, and almost get her killed by her own comrades. END OF SPOILERS

It’s a bad movie sure and a stupid one at that but it passes the time. While watching bad classic horror is something I enjoy, it does neatly though reflect our subject today. It may be horror basically only by association, but it is a neat distillation of so much of the typical propaganda effort and I think a worthy watch to see and then compare to one of the countless movies of the WWII era that act similarly in their dealing with the war. Afraid of nuance or anything that might suggest that either side is complex.

Next up: I take a look at the 146-minute-long A Cure for Wellness as I ponder the length of movies.

2017 Partial Schedule