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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Amazing Transparent Man

The invisible character trope was hardly new. At first glance, The Amazing Transparent Man (ATM) might appear to be merely a modernized remake of H.G. Wells' Invisible Man. They do have points in common, but ATM is actually better than just a cheap update of Wells. Interwoven are several crime drama threads which make ATM a hybrid sci-fi and film noir piece. Edgar Ulmer, no stranger to noir, directs. The result is better than the title implies.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A woman helps a safe cracker break out of a maximum security prison. She takes Joey to a remote farm house. There, he meets Major Krenner who has big plans. He wants Joey to steal nuclear isotopes. To do this, Krenner has a captive German scientist who has developed an invisibility ray. They use it on Joey. Invisible Joey cracks the safe and steals the isotopes. They use the new (but unstable) isotopes to make Joey invisible again. Joey decides to rob a bank instead, planning to run off with Laura and not return to Krenner. During the heist, he becomes partially visible again. Reports circulate. Krenner figures he must pack up and move his operation before the cops come. Joey arrives, demanding that Ulof fix the intermittent invisibility . Joey locks Krenner in the attic bedroom. When they all leave, Ulof tells Joey that invisible ray treatments mean Joey has only a few weeks to live. He urges Joey to go back and stop Krenner so he cannot make his invisible army. Back in the house, Krenner escaped and shoots Laura dead. Joey and Krenner fight up in the lab. The ray is beamed onto the unstable isotope, creating a nuclear explosion. The police return with Dr. Ulof, who muses aloud about the dangers of invisible armies and hopes the secret died with Krenner. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story has more depth than the usual low-budget B film. There are back-story threads to muse over. The usual "invisible man" trope gets a film-noir twist. The turning-invisible effects aren't too bad. And, Marguerite Chapman (Alita in Flight To Mars '51), though a bit past her prime, is still easy on the eyes.

Cold War Angle
Aside from the ubiquitous nuclear material forming the "magic" for whatever the writer dreamed up, there is a more subtle angle. Krenner's dream of an invisible army had more potency for 1960 audiences. Americans had been fearing a communist invasion for years. Invisible commies (think 5th columnists and spies) were pretty frightening.

Invisible Modern Man -- H.G.Wells penned the story of The Invisible Man in 1897. Jack Lewis created a modern (1950s) adaptation. There are similarities, such invisible crimes and feelings of invincibility, but there are ample differences too. Lewis used the 50s favorite -- ubiquitous radioactive materials -- to perform the magic, instead of chemistry.

Sci-Noir -- In the film noir style, none of the cast noble characters. Krenner, the villain, is naturally unlikable, but shows an undignified cowardly streak. Joey Faust, the safe cracker, is brutish and arrogant. Laura has an implied shady past which Krenner uses to blackmail her into his service. Her being killed underscores her unredeemed essence. Dr. Ulof is the former nazi who does as he's told -- even to the point of torturing his wife to death. Julian, the henchman, is a miniature of Ulof. He does what he's told. Ulmer's directing tried to evoke some artsy sense of Wyeth-esque isolation with the remote victorian farm house. This wasn't particularly effective.

Noir With A Twist -- Unlike classic noir writing, Lewis manages to give each of his characters a slight redemptive twist. You almost, but not quite, feel sorry for them all. The slowly dying Ulof tries to repent of his science-for-hire philosophy, urging Joey to stop Krenner, to make the world safe for their daughters. Joey, normally selfish, does opt to spend his last moments (he was dying of radiation poisoning too) blowing up Krenner. Laura at least dreamed of getting away from her dark life and being a decent woman. Julian, we find out, was motivated by a vain hope of helping his son, whom he though was "in a european prison."

Blatant Foreshadowing -- A less well-crafted bit of the screenplay was the heavy-handed foreshadowing of the doom that awaited. Krenner upbraids Ulof for not being careful enough with the radiation beam. If the beam hit the safe full of fissionable materials, it "could make the whole countryside go up in a mushroom cloud." Anyone with a few years of movie--watching experience knows, at that point, that this is exactly what is going to happen. If such a danger were real, that safe would be nowhere near that beam machine, not just a few feet away.

Asking For Trouble -- At the bottom of the movie poster is an odd (and silly) bit of promotional hype. Invisible Joey may be in the theater causing mischief. Police take notice. The producers/promotoers, no doubt, hoped adolescent viewers would take the hint and pull some invisible-man pranks. It's actually somewhat shrewd of the promoters to try and co-opt juvenile tendencies.

Bottom line? ATM is, like most B-movies, not impressive for stellar acting, lavish sets or amazing effects. Yet, it manages to be "good enough" to be entertaining. It has more noir than sci-fi, but the twists in plot keep things moving.


Mike Scott said...

Quote: The producers/promotoers, no doubt, hoped adolescent viewers would take the hint and pull some invisible-man pranks.

Sounds like they were gonna pull a William Castle type gimmick, but according to the book "Beyond Ballyhoo" it was just a "prove he ain't here" deal.

Nightowl said...

Hi Mike,
As a promotional gimmick, it seemed cute enough, but the fact that Joey Faust dies near the end of the movie seemed to ruin its potential effectiveness. If he died at last Saturday's matinee, he couldn't be haunting this weeks. etc. etc.

That gimmick must have been an afterthought. Would have been more 'fun' if Faust was hinted at escaping the blast. Valid theater haunting AND sequel potential. Eh? huh? right?

Mike Scott said...

Quote: As a promotional gimmick, it seemed cute enough, but the fact that Joey Faust dies near the end of the movie seemed to ruin its potential effectiveness.

Maybe he's invisible because he's a ghost? LOL