Monday, April 1, 2013
Strange Illusion (1945)
The movie starts off with a heavy-handed dream sequence in which we see Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) walking in a thick mist. His mother and a man, whose silhouette is all that can be seen of him, are walking besides him. Paul explains to the viewer how the silhouette is not his father, who he was close with. His mother Virginia (Sally Eilers) proceeds to tells him it is his new father, but Paul has a very bad feeling about this silhouette. His sister Dorothy (Jayne Hazard) joins them and shows Paul a bracelet with a lions head on it which the new man has given her. As they're walking a train can be seen, which hits a car, distressing Paul even more, and Paul awakens from his nightmare, with Dr. Vincent (Regis Toomey) sitting by his bed. Dr. Vincent, or 'Doc' as Paul calls him, is a family friend and he and Paul are on a fishing trip together. Paul's dad, a former judge and lieutenant Governor of California, had died 2 years before after an accident. When Paul returns back home from the trip, he finds out his mother has started dating local businessman Brett Curtis (Warren William). Later that night he meets Curtis over dinner and he seems alright enough, even tho Paul cannot get the dream out of his mind. However afterwards, his sister Dorothy shows him a bracelet Curtis just gave to her, which has a lions head on it! Paul starts to feel his dream might become reality and becomes very suspicious of Brett Curtis. Later on he starts to go through his father's old files and comes across the unsolved case of Claude Barrington. Barrington was thought to be a murderer among other crooked things but nothing could ever be proven as there were never any fingerprints found and no witnesses that came forward and Barrington got away with everything and he was thought to have died. When his mother tells Paul about a past engagement of Curtis, where his fiancee drowned, he's reminded of one of Barrington's unsolved murders, and his suspicious mind immediately thinks Brett Curtis and Claude Barrington are one and the same. He starts his own investigation, reluctantly aided by Dr. Vincent, which leads him to Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), a psychiatrist who has his own clinic, and who seems to be a friend and associate of Brett Curtis. Paul decides to have himself institutionalized to try to find out more that way. But Curtis and Muhlbach are on to him, and a cat & mouse game ensues.
The movie was made in under a week and with an extremely low budget, and quite frankly, it shows. The story uses a number of forced plotdevices to move things along, but that stretch the imagination. For instance, Paul's dad was obviously aware of his death, because he left behind a stack of letters with his lawyer to send to Paul at regular intervals. Sound believable? Not to me it doesn't... In one of the letters he receives right before he finds out about Brett Curtis dating his mother, his dad warns Paul about his mothers gullibility and that he's to take responsibility of the household and not let men prey on his mother. What a coincidence. Another instance of the low budget is when Paul is watching a car late at night from a second story window, at an angle which makes it impossible to look properly into the car to see who's inside. But the camera shows who's inside the car from a much lower angle, as if we're seeing it through Paul's eyes, which is clearly not the case. There are more instances and some of them are quite annoying to be honest.
The way Paul and his friends are taken straight out of boys movies from that era adds an almost comedic air to the movie, they have that juvenile happy-go-lucky 'charm' to their dialogue, and it just doesn't feel right. You almost expect them to say 'Gee wiz!' every other sentence, thankfully that doesn't happen, but 'Boy!' does get used. Paul is played by Jimmy Lydon, who actually starred in a series of these movies under the Henry Aldrich moniker, but that's no excuse to act the same way here. Lydon's even called James Lydon in the credits, which seems like an obvious attempt to seperate him from his former character and give him a more serious edge. But it's not much use with Lydon still playing a Henry Aldrich-like character here, now is it?
There are a few good things here tho. Occasionally some shots play with shadows in pretty clever and effective ways. And Warren William, who was a moderately popular actor in the pre-code era (he was the original Perry Mason) plays an ultra-slimey but very distinguished, smooth & suave creep here, to great effect. William was way past his prime here (and would die a few years later) but he still manages to play the part here, you know he's up to no good the second you see him, with his oily combed back hair, hawk-like nose and his thin smile. He definitely was able to combine the sinister and the classy person in one character.
Warren William is actually the only actor with any sort of redeemable part here. Regis Toomey was an accomplished actor, but his part as Dr. Vincent is too one-dimensional to really allow him to show his skills. And most everybody else just seems to go through the motions, with George Reed who played Paul's friend Ben, as the low point, there's nothing serious about his acting. It seems an obvious consequence of the really short filming time (under a week reportedly), the low budget and the script which isn't all that great. Ulmer was known for making the most out of such bad circumstances, but I'm afraid even he was incapable of saving this movie from the lower end of mediocrity.
The movie is noir-ish, but it is more of a semi-paranormal crime/melodrama than anything else without the dark grittiness usually associated with film noir. The night scenes are fairly atmospheric and there's a decent use of shadows every so often, but this movie is more interesting to Edgar G. Ulmer aficionados than film noir aficionados.
I couldn't find a trailer for this movie, but you can watch it in its entirety on archive.org.