August 11, 2015
In April of 1959 Edgar G. Ulmer was given an impossible task. Toiling in Dallas for Miller Consolidated Pictures, a short-lived B-picture studio, he was assigned to shoot two features in eleven days. These turned into Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960). Most of the limited time and money was spent on Beyond, since its leap into the future required more elaborate set design and a larger cast. What remained for him to use for The Amazing Transparent Man was a house on a hill, five actors, and an improbable tale of a mad Major experimenting with nuclear radiation to create an army of invisible warriors. From these meager resources Ulmer spun a dark, despairing tale of Atomic Age breakdown. Each character nurses a private tragedy, egged onward to self-annihilation. For most of its life the film has been an object of scorn — it was the subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode — but seeing a 16mm print projected at Anthology Film Archives (in their series on American International Pictures) was something of a revelation.
Miller Consolidated Pictures, led by John Miller, Mike Miller and Robert Madden, was a fly by night operation targeting the seedier side of the B-picture market, hiring exploitation publicity legend Kroger Babb as Vice President. He likely came up with the prime ballyhoo on the poster about how the Transparent Man will “appear invisibly IN PERSON at every performance.” The Amazing Transparent Man could be included in Anthology’s AIP series because Miller Consolidated Pictures (MCP) went belly up soon after the film was given a limited release in 1960, finishing its run with three films to its name (Date With Death (’59) and the two Ulmers). AIP snapped up the rights to Amazing Transparent Man and gave it a national rollout in 1961 as the top half of a double bill with the British Godzilla knockoff GORGO. In the dual review in the New York Times Howard Thompson raved about GORGO (“the best outright monster shocker since King Kong“), leaving only one withering sentence for the Ulmer film: “The word for The Amazing Transparent Man is pitiful.”
This “pitiful” production seemed doomed from the start. Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne acted in Beyond the Time Barrier, but bailed before shooting on the Transparent Man was completed (Ulmer was working on both simultaneously). “The reason I left”, she recalled to Tom Weaver (Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks), “was because the two-story motel where the whole crew was living burned to the ground.” Hence the reason each actor seems so hollowed out and exhausted. The pulpy script was by Jack Lewis, a former Marine and founder of Gun World magazine who self-described as a “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo.” Whether he was drunk or vagrant during his creation of the script is unknown, but Lewis was mainly a writer of Westerns, with Transparent Man the only science-fiction yarn he ever filmed.
Major Paul Krenner (James Griffith) and Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman (Spy Smasher), in her final film) help ace safecracker Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) bust out of prison. In return for his freedom, the Major wants Faust to break into a government facility to steal fissile materials. This will allow Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) to continue his invisibility experiments, which has thus far only successfully been executed on guinea pigs. With no way out, Faust agrees to the deal, becoming Ulof’s first human trial – only a transparent man could break into the vault containing nuclear material. The Major’s goal is to create an entire army of invisible men, but Faust isn’t keen on his crackpot scheme, and instead goes into business on his own, convincing Laura to help him rob a bank and flee Krenner’s control. But the invisibility treatment starts to wear of, he is identified, and everyone’s plans begin to crumble. As everyone scrambles to save their lives, Ulof’s lab becomes a ticking time bomb.
Invisible man stories are creative opportunities for the budget-minded director (see also: Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders), because you can shoot an empty room and the viewer’s mind creates the illusion of action. Ulmer takes advantage of this throughout, training his camera on nothing. Bare tables and floors become axes of tension, and the director relies on his actors as reactors, their expressions investing the void with dread. Lewis’s script posits the past as another void, with each character wishing for it to disappear. Dr. Peter Ulof, a European refugee, confesses to Faust that he was forced to become a doctor for the Nazis, performing experiments on hooded prisoners in concentration camps. Each patient was anonymous, so Ulof could not tell that one of his “patients” was his own wife, who died under his hand on the operating table. Ulof has been forced to work for Krenner because his daughter Maria is being held hostage, and if he quits, she dies. Krenner is also manipulating one of his guards, Julian (Red Morgan), by convincing him his son has been jailed in Europe, and that Krenner can set him free (this turns out to be a lie). Laura’s motivation is simply money and power, and she gravitates to Faust’s plan for a quick score at the local bank. Though he is named Faust, the deal he makes with Krenner is not a selling of a soul, for Faust has none. He’s a craven criminal with nothing but the basest self-interest.
In one of the film’s most elaborate optical effects, Faust’s body starts reappearing during the bank robbery, his head popping back into view, and then his legs, before his whole body reconstitutes itself. He is disappointed when he gets his body back – the only happiness in the film appears in Faust’s voice when he is invisible, when he can revel in his insubstantiality. But being cured of his visibility is going to kill him – the doc gives him only a few weeks to live. Characters don’t die in The Amazing Transparent Man, though, they just to crumple and dissipate. When Julian is informed that his son was dead, he slumps down onto a chair and simply shuts down. He is never seen or heard from again, as if the illusion of his son’s existence was the only thing tying him to this earthly plane. The ending is suitably apocalyptic, bringing the atom bomb to middle America. This catastrophic event is something the characters seem to yearn for, to have their individual cells fission along with the nuclear material, to wholly disappear into the bright, white light.