In the late nineteenth century, influential science fiction writer H.G. Wells gathered a group of serialized chapters together into what would become his novel The Invisible Man. The story’s idea has been filmed dozens of times throughout cinematic history, beginning with James Whale’s legendary 1933 Universal classic The Invisible Man and continuing into the 2000s with the Paul Verhoeven/Kevin Bacon film Hollow Man. The vanishing person concept became a staple of the sci-fi genre, with the premise finding its way into alien invasion movies like Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders as well as comedic sendups like John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man. In 1960, at the height of the cold war, the invisible man idea was combined with the menace of looming nuclear threat in the quickie low-budget sci-fi film The Amazing Transparent Man.
The Amazing Transparent Man begins with a safecracker named Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy from The Alligator People) being busted out of prison by a young woman named Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman from Flight to Mars). Joey is understandably curious about Laura’s reasons for breaking him out, and he soon learns the truth; he was sprung by Major Paul Krenner (The Vampire’s James Griffith), a crazy military leader who needs Joey’s specialized skills. Krenner has been blackmailing a scientist named Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault from Notorious) into perfecting an invisibility ray with which he plans to create an army of transparent soldiers to take over the world. The device runs on radioactive material, and Krenner wants Joey to break into a bank vault and steal some, all while invisible of course. After a demonstration of the machine in which the doctor makes a guinea pig disappear, it’s Joey’s turn. Once invisible, he can waltz right in and take whatever he wants. Of course, he’s a criminal, so he automatically starts to think of how he can use his situation to his own advantage, but the doctor also realizes that the invisibility ray has harmful effects on its subjects. No one in the group knows who they can trust, and time is running out for Joey as the radiation makes its way through his body.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, The Man from Planet X) shot The Amazing Transparent Man back-to-back with Beyond the Time Barrier, using much of the same crew and taking about two weeks for both films combined. The screenplay was written by Jack Lewis (Secret File: Hollywood), and it is a fairly effective mixture of crime drama and science fiction. The film itself seems to have suffered a bit in the hasty production, as there are a few unexplored subplots and loose ends that give the short little movie an unfinished quality, almost as if the production ran out of money after splitting the funding between two features. Nevertheless, for what it is, which is a low-budget science fiction film, The Amazing Transparent Man is a pretty fun movie.
In a lot of ways, The Amazing Transparent Man gets a bad rap. Sure, the script is wordy and the plentiful dialogue is silly (“this gun will rip out your spine and roll it up like a ball of string”). The acting is so-so and the editing is a bit shaky. The science portrayed in the film is almost laughable. There is no clear protagonist; the only likeable character is Dr. Ulof, and he is the creator of the dreaded invisibility machine! Basically, the film is unbelievable, and plays with the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That’s what makes it cool, though; it’s a typical old-school science fiction film that is enjoyable in spite of all of its flaws – the fact that it’s unbelievable is why it’s so much fun to watch.
Made while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both struggling to emerge as the world’s unchallenged nuclear power, The Amazing Transparent Man is a thinly veiled reflection of the fears surrounding atomic power and weaponry. The film goes to great lengths to illustrate the danger of the radioactive material that Krenner orders Joey to steal. The film emphasizes and re-emphasizes the fact that the entire compound could blow up in a mushroom-clouded explosion at any moment if the experiments should happen to go wrong. In addition, the radiation poisoning that the invisibility machine inflicts upon the organisms that are exposed to it is another threat that the nuclear material is shown to pose. The silly little film makes some important social comments about the state of the country in the atomic age; while Japan made more symbolic movies like Godzilla and Rodan to illustrate their fears of nuclear energy and weaponry, America made more straight-forward movies like The Amazing Transparent Man.
For such a low-budget rush job of a film, the visual effects in The Amazing Transparent Man are pretty impressive. The movie was one of the first for special effects guru Roger George, who would go on to provide every type of effect imaginable throughout his career, from splatter schlock in Bloody Birthday and Night of the Creeps to pyrotechnics in Bad Dreams, Night of the Demons, and Saturday the 14th. George’s contributions to The Amazing Transparent Man are mostly photographical, similar to his effects work on films like The Dunwich Horror and The Astral Factor, in which he works closely with cinematographer Meredith M. Nicholson (The Devil’s Hand, Frankenstein’s Daughter) and editor Jack Ruggiero (Varan the Unbelievable) to achieve the illusion of invisibility. The disappearance segments are done through a combination of stop-motion, film overlaying, and matte painting. The actual scenes where Joey is invisible are done through clever and crazy photographic work. In some scenes, the camera follows the actor’s voice to where he would be if he were visible. In others, the camera focuses on things like doors opening by themselves or objects seemingly flying around as if they’re being handled by invisible hands. There’s even a fun scene where a security guard fights with the invisible Joey, appearing to be scuffling with himself. The invisibility effects are simple yet effective, which is exactly what a small budget film like The Amazing Transparent Man calls for.
The score for The Amazing Transparent Man was done by prolific Hollywood composer Darrell Calker (My World Dies Screaming, From Hell it Came), and it perfectly combines the science fiction elements of the film with the gangster and crime aspects. The music is both ominous and menacing, but still sounds outlandish and fantastical at times. The arc of the score rises with the story, creating tension and suspense as it progresses. It may sound stereotypical at times, but the score for The Amazing Transparent Man is a great example of what sci-fi movies from the time period should sound like – pushed to the edge, but not quite going over it.
When it comes to mad scientist movies, invisibility potions and machines are a standard enough trope to have been both plagiarized and parodied countless numbers of times over the years. The Amazing Transparent Man gets lost in the plethora of invisible man movies, but it’s worth tracking down for fans who have an hour to kill and want a little transparent entertainment.