Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mirage (1965)

David Stillwell (Gregory Peck): [to Walter Matthau’s private investigator Ted Caselle]
“Wouldn't it be hilarious if it turned out you actually knew what you were doing?”

Mirage is an odd film; a “sort of” noir shot in the mid 1960s, by one of the men who helped invented the noir genre back in the 40s, Edward Dmytryk. From the start, Dmytryk was an interesting stylist, taking rather mundane projects like the routine horror film The Devil Commands (1941), or the even less promising Captive Wild Woman (1943), and imbuing them with a sense of personal commitment and genuine menace. Then, with the exploitation thriller Hitler’s Children (1943), which made a fortune for RKO, and supposedly depicted the activities of the Hitler Youth movement, Dmytryk finally had a chance to move up, and with Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the best of Philip Marlowe films, which gave Dick Powell a whole new career as a hard boiled detective after spending the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in Busby Berkeley films, Dmytryk did just that.

Crossfire (1947) consolidated his reputation as a noir realist, specializing in stories torn from the headlines, but Dmytryk’s political beliefs soon came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, and along with many others, he soon found himself on trial for contempt of Congress as one of the Hollywood Ten - the story is well known. Found guilty, Dmytryk was sent to prison, but soon cracked, was released, gave “friendly” testimony to the HUAC, named names, and was rewarded with one of the most brutal films of his career, The Sniper (1952), about a psychopathic killer, with Eduard Franz in the leading role, and Adolphe Menjou, one of the architects of the Blacklist, as the co-star, perhaps to keep an eye on the erring director.

But Dmytryk had learned his lesson, so to speak, and went on to such big budget successes as The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Raintree County (1957), but by 1965, his career was coming to a close. That’s when Universal tapped Dmytryk to make one of the last of their medium budgeted black and white theatrical films - the last year the studio released any major films in black and white, in fact - the amnesia murder mystery Mirage, starring Gregory Peck, up-and-comer Walter Matthau as private investigator Ted Caselle, Diane Baker as Shela, the film’s love interest, and a gallery of great character actors, including George Kennedy as a vengeful “enforcer,” Willard; Kevin McCarthy as the smarmy Josephson, the ultimate corporation man; Leif Erickson as a militaristic heavy, Major Crawford; Walter Abel as Calvin, a world - renowned philanthropist; pudgy Jack Weston as Lester, a sardonic hitman; Robert H. Harris as an unsympathetic psychiatrist, and a host of other excellent players.

The script for Mirage, by Peter Stone, is based on a novel by Howard Fast, and production went smoothly throughout the shoot. The film looks it, too, with a high gloss, and a certain cold, detached style that perfectly fits the corporate canyons on the New York City landscape. Mirage was photographed in workmanlike fashion by Joseph MacDonald, and features a compelling and very early music score by Quincy Jones. (In his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?, composer Henry Mancini recalls getting a call from a production executive on the film asking whether or not Jones could handle the assignment; as the conversation went on, Mancini realized to his shock that the fact that Jones was African-American was the unspoken sticking point. Disgusted by this corporate racism, Mancini gave Jones an unqualified reference for the film, and Jones, of course, did a superb job on the film).

The real star of the film, though, other than the plot, which is remarkably complex and heavily laden with flashbacks, flash forwards, and time shifts, is the Alain Resnais-influenced editing of Ted J. Kent, which is so sharp and flashy that one wonders how Universal let him get away with it. Obviously, Dmytryk designed the film in this fashion, but even so, it’s a much more adventurous film that the typical Universal feature of the era that it stands out, even today, as a boldly innovative film.

I can’t go into the plot in too much detail without spoiling the film, which I have no intention of doing; suffice it to say that Peck plays David Stillwell, a corporate cog who thinks he is a “cost accountant,” who is stuck in a skyscraper during a blackout as the film opens.

At the same time, Calvin, the philanthropist, falls to his death from the building, and then Stillwell’s life seems to collapse. No one knows him, his office seems to have vanished, he has no memory of the past several years, it seems, and he keeps experiencing events that simply couldn’t have happened, so much so that he fears he’s losing his mind. Also, people show up trying to kill him or kidnap him, like Jack Weston’s Lester or George Kennedy’s Willard, thinking that Stillwell has some crucial information in his briefcase, but Stillwell, naturally, has no idea what this might be.

When he is cold-shouldered by Dr. Broden (Robert H. Harris), a psychiatrist he picks out of the phone book, Stillwell is at a loss, but determined to find out what has happened to the life he thought he had. Convinced that there has to be a rational explanation, Stillwell then hires fledgling private eye Ted Caselle to find out what’s really happening to him - is he losing his mind, is it all a dream, or is it just blotted out memories that he doesn’t want to recall? However, before he can get too far on the case, Caselle is murdered. This sets up the stage for the final showdown that shows corporate corruption at its most venal, as Stillwell discovers a truth that he barely suspected was possible as the root of the entire affair.

Mirage is visually crisp and solid, because part of it was shot in location in Manhattan in the 1960s, and it certainly captures the flavor of the era, but in its lighting and visual setups, it looks more like a black and white TV movie than anything else, something like William Castle’s interesting thriller The Night Walker, which came out from Universal the same year. What makes Mirage so compelling is Dmytryk’s adroit blending of fact, or what Stillwell accepts as fact, and memory or dreams, which are used as shock intercuts throughout the film in a manner more reminiscent of the French New Wave filmmakers than anything else.

The bulk of the film is shot on the Universal lot, of course, and it shows, and the middle section of the film is bogged down by a rather precious romantic interlude with Diane Baker while Stillwell is on the run from Weston and Kennedy, which really serves no other purpose other than to give the film a middle act. Robert Mitchum once rather unkindly called Gregory Peck “the dullest actor in motion pictures,” but this really isn’t accurate; Peck has a limited range, but he acquits himself superbly in Mirage, effectively conveying a sense of persecution and bewilderment as his world collapses.

You might call Mirage a 1960s noir, sort of a bridge between the noirs of the 40s and the neo-noirs of the 90s; it’s also a psychological thriller that demonstrates with admirable bleakness just how alone we are in the world, when all that we think we know vanishes, and we have nothing left to hang on to. It’s also about, as most noirs are, the fact that you can’t trust anyone, that even the most altruistic individuals can be compromised for a price, that nothing is real and tangible in the corporate world, where loyalty, of a sort, always goes to the highest bidder. Mirage is thus highly recommended - except for the middle section, where it almost stops dead - but the finale makes the entire film more than worthwhile, and there’s something both curious and distinctive about it, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. He is the author of numerous books, including Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.


  1. Have a weakness for modest-budget productions that well-known directors helmed and big time movie stars headlined, as Universal would put out (i.e., 'Touch of Evil'). This is one of them.
    Being familiar with 'Mirage' might explain why - in 1968, already - I found James Goldstone's 'Jigsaw' (w. Bradford Dillman and Hope Lange) nearly as enjoyable.

  2. Well this film is very good with wonderful photography and location shots. Peck gives a great performance as the amnesia sufferer and although I usually find Matthau an annoying actor he is fantastic in this part and the film suffers with his departure.
    I totally agree about the love interest slowing the story down even though Miss Baker is a delight to look at.


  3. "I can’t go into the plot in too much detail without spoiling the film, which I have no intention of doing;"
    "However, before he can get too far on the case, Caselle is murdered."

    You didn't really need to say that.


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