The Amazing Transparent Man (1959) ***
It’s always seemed to me that there was something fundamentally unrealistic about the old Universal Studios Invisible Man films— I mean, you know, apart from the whole “people turning invisible” business. See, I really don’t think most people, if given the power of invisibility, would use it quite the way the various protagonists of those old movies did. I seriously doubt, for example, that I’d immediately set out to conquer the world or try to clear my name of a crime I didn’t commit if I ever woke up invisible one day, and I’m absolutely certain that “spying on the Axis” would be very low on an invisible El Santo’s list of priorities. I suppose I might use my invisibility to get back at those who have wronged me (I do know a couple of people who could use a little Invisible Man’s Revenge, now that I think about it), but even then, I doubt that’s the first thing I’d do, and I’m none too sure the average person would think of that at all. No, I’m betting most of us would follow the lead of The Amazing Transparent Man’s Joey Faust, and just go around committing crimes. Mind you, I’m not saying we’d necessarily rob banks like Joey does, but I bet we’d all shoplift. I bet we’d at least seriously consider sneaking into the bathroom to spy on our roommate’s hot girlfriend (or boyfriend, as the case may be) in the shower. I bet we’d give some thought to releasing hundreds of slugs into that bitchy old lady down the street’s beloved azalea patch. Well, okay... so maybe only I’d do that last one, but you know what I mean. In any event, today we’re going to have a look at a different sort of invisible man movie, courtesy of the ever off-kilter imagination of Edgar G. Ulmer.
You know something funny’s going on when an invisible man flick begins with a prison break. Notorious bank robber Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy, of Invaders from Mars and The Land Unknown) makes it over the wall despite the best efforts of who knows how many men, dogs, and firearms, and flees through the forest to a remote, unlit road. Once there, he climbs into a ‘59 Buick convertible which is being driven by a woman named Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman, from Flight to Mars); Miss Matson, apparently, is somehow behind the success of Faust’s escape. The question is, why? Faust has never seen Laura before in his life, nor has he ever heard of the man she’s taking him to see, Major Paul Krenner (The Vampire’s James Griffith). Laura and her partner obviously know who he is, though, as does the rifle-wielding man standing guard outside the isolated Victorian mansion to which Laura drives. Laura introduces the sentry as Julian (Boyd Morgan, from Beyond the Time Barrier and Foxy Brown), and has him follow her and her guest inside to meet the mysterious major.
Now chances are you’re expecting Krenner to be some kind of mad scientist, given that this is an invisible man movie, but you’d be wrong about that. Krenner is just an ex-military man (formerly of “several armies,” he tells Faust) who has a use for someone with Faust’s talents. Joey, you see, is widely renowned in the criminal underworld as one of the world’s best safecrackers, and Krenner needs someone to steal him some experimental fissile material from the US military nuclear weapons laboratory down the road from his house. Up in the attic, Krenner has a lab of his own, operated by a European refugee scientist named Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault, from Cry of the Werewolf and Journey to the Center of the Earth), in which Ulof is working on an invisibility ray powered by radioactive decay. The ray is already highly effective, but if Ulof had the military’s new X-13 radioactive fuel to power it, who knows how much more capable it could be made? Krenner’s plan is to render Faust invisible with Ulof’s ray, and send him off to collect a sample of X-13; his fee for handling the job will be $1000, and if Faust doesn’t like Krenner’s terms, that’s really too bad. The $5000 bounty that has just been put out on Faust remains good whether the fugitive is brought in dead or alive, after all.
Of course it’s no easy matter to blackmail a career criminal, and Faust really doesn’t care for Krenner’s terms at all. At the earliest opportunity, Faust incapacitates Julian (whom Krenner set to stand guard over the bank robber’s room) and sneaks up to the lab to have a few words with Dr. Ulof. In doing so, Faust discovers that Krenner is blackmailing the scientist, too— Krenner has his daughter, Maria (Carmel Daniel) locked up in a smaller room in the attic, and he promises to kill the girl if Ulof doesn’t do exactly as he’s told. Why? Because Krenner’s goal is to create an entire army of invisible men with which to make himself master of America (if not the entire world), and given that Ulof had spent part of World War II in a Nazi concentration camp being forced to perform medical experiments on his fellow prisoners (including even his own wife!), he could scarcely be expected to go along with Krenner’s scheme of his own free will. Now if Faust were but smart enough to see it, this situation gives him substantial bargaining power with Ulof. That lock on Maria’s door might foil her father, but surely it’s no match for a master lock-picker like Faust. In fact, Ulof nearly talks Faust into opening the door for him, but the two men are interrupted by Laura Matson, who comes into the lab waving a pistol. Faust, not to be thwarted so easily, begins looking for ways to turn her against Krenner, suggesting that she stands to gain much from a partnership with a potentially invisible bank robber. But again, Faust’s scheming is brought to nothing when Julian recovers from Joey’s earlier attack, creeps up behind him, and clouts him on the head with a wine bottle. Faust’s escape from Krenner and his associates is going to have to wait for another day.
The following evening, Krenner sets his big plan in motion. He has Ulof turn Faust invisible, and then prepares to send him off to the military lab, but Krenner has miscalculated rather seriously. His ascendancy over Faust thus far has rested solely on his ability to threaten the other man, but how does one credibly threaten somebody one can’t even see? Once Ulof has done his work, Faust turns the tables on Krenner quite completely, raising his price for the break-in at the lab to $25,000, and leaving his “employer” with as little choice in the matter as he himself had enjoyed the day before.
Faust’s raid on the lab is a resounding success— none of the guards ever knew what was happening. Krenner wants Faust to go back and get more X-13 the next day, but once he’s out on the road with Laura, Faust announces a change of plan. Instead of visiting the military lab, he and Laura are going into town to hit a bank. At first, it looks like this heist is going to proceed just as smoothly as the previous one, but there’s a small complication that Faust doesn’t know about. Ulof’s invisibility ray works extremely well, but its subjects tend to develop a tolerance for its effects. And because Krenner insisted that Ulof use the newly acquired X-13 to power the machine when he... uhhh... re-invisiblated the thief that morning, the rate at which Faust’s resistance to the ray develops is far greater than anything Ulof has encountered in his experimental animals. Faust is right in the middle of strolling invisibly out the door with a sack of cash in his hand when parts of his body begin regaining their opacity. Faust runs back to the car, but not before several of the bank’s customers recognize his face from the TV news. And now that the cops know they’ve got an invisible robber on the loose, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the theft of the X-13 suddenly make a lot more sense.
We may not need the cops to wrap this story up, though. Krenner watches the news too, and he knows what happened long before Faust and Laura return from what was supposed to be their fuel-stealing errand. Not only is Krenner pissed when he sees Laura’s Buick pull up in front of the house, he’s climactically pissed, and determined to repay both Faust and Laura for their disobedience. But because Faust’s invisibility has merely become unstable rather than inactive, Krenner is at nearly as big a disadvantage against the Amazing Transparent Man as he had been the night before. Not only that, Krenner also has Ulof, Laura, and even Julian (who has just found out how Krenner’s been screwing him, too) to contend with. Then there’s the not inconsequential matter of the safe full of highly volatile X-13 in the attic, standing right next to a machine that emits radiation capable of penetrating even solid lead...
Of the Ulmer-directed movies I’ve seen thus far, The Amazing Transparent Man is easily the best. Like The Black Cat and The Man from Planet X, it reflects the director’s taste for quirky subject matter, but Ulmer and his cast handle the whole affair with far more assurance than had characterized either of those earlier films. In their hands, Jack Lewis’s rather top-heavy screenplay is never allowed to seem as ridiculous as it probably should, what with its combination of mad science, crime, and insane world-domination conspiracies. Ulmer’s long-evident flair for visual composition is also in full effect, even in spite of the poverty-row budget. All in all, The Amazing Transparent Man makes for an enjoyable change of pace from the run of the invisible-man mill, and really deserves to be better known than it is today.