Strange Illusion (1945)
Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon), a sensitive young man still shaken by his father's death a couple years previous, has a dream in which he witnesses the violent car crash that took his father's life, not as an accident, but as a murder. In the dream he also sees his mother (Sally Eilers) and sister Dorothy (Jayne Hazard) being seduced by a shadowy stranger, who Paul fears may be his father's murderer. After returning to school, Paul still cannot shake the awful dream, and when the peculiar Brett Curtis (Warren William) comes to court his mother, Paul realizes that the occurrences in his dream are beginning to come true. He enlists his friends and the family doctor to help him uncover the secrets hidden in his nightmares before his mother gets tangled in the web of deceit spun by the mysterious and dangerous Mr. Curtis.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer is one of the most respected and accomplished directors to have had only one mainstream hit - The Black Cat, a 1934 horror classic. Ulmer often longed to return to the major studios, but feared that he would be ground up in the Hollywood machine. He instead found security in the "Poverty Row" world of low-budget filmmaking at the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), where his skillfully crafted string of B-movie hits, such as Detour and The Strange Woman, earned him the reputation as the "Capra of PRC."
Strange Illusion demonstrates just how clever a director Ulmer was, and how he earned the reputation for making even the smallest of budgets appear to be impressively larger. Right from the opening dream sequence, employing fundamental but inspired fog and lighting trickery, the viewers know they're being guided through this fictional world by a clever and capable storyteller. Ulmer, who was previously an accomplished set designer, is a master at making minimalist filmmaking appear extravagant, utilizing what the French call mise en scene, a technique in which the framing of a shot contains only the necessary elements (lighting, objects, actors, etc.) to properly convey the scenes sentiment.
Ulmer's interpretation of the Hamlet inspired suspense script, drawn up by Adele Comandini and Fritz Rotter, marks Ulmer's penchant for the more dark and twisted side of things. Jimmy Lydon (from the popular Henry Aldrich series of all-American teen hit movies) does a fine job layering his aw-shucks delivery with undertones of teen-angst (even before the term "teen angst" was invented), but Ulmer taints the character just a bit with the Oedipus-like relationship with the mother (an element that appears in other Ulmer movies). Instead of greeting his mother with maternal respect, like most teen boys would do, Paul holds her in an intimate, almost lovers-like embrace, and refers to her as "Princess."
More disturbing is Ulmer's handling of the sinister Brett Curtis, a creepy character who dubiously seduces the mother, while lecherously ogling Paul's younger sister and their teen friends. One scene has Curtis standing poolside, leering at Paul's girlfriend Lydia (Mary McLeod) with bad intent. Later, Lydia confides that the mysterious gigolo joined her in the pool and proceeded to grope her, and then pull her underwater to strangle and kiss her. Another scene has Curtis cornering Paul's sister in a boathouse. The audience never is witness to what Curtis does to the girl, but when Paul comes to her rescue, we see that her jacket is opened, and her blouse undone by one button. This kind of behavior may seem awful tame by today's standards, but taboo shattering deeds, like adults going around groping teenagers, was pretty advanced for that era. It's these kinds of storytelling risks that make this 60-year-old film intriguing to today's progressive audience.
Strange Illusion is one of Edgar G. Ulmer's lost thriller classics, and a must see for film noir and Ulmer fans alike. It has been unearthed and ably re-mastered from an original 35MM print (a tag for War Bonds is at the tail end of the film) by the folks at Allday Entertainment. It's the 5th in a growing series of Ulmer's more popular titles.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in Jersey, ready to expose his dark side to Hollywood.