Movie Review: “Mirage” (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1965)

While Edward Dmytryk’s name is not well-known now, he was in his day a celebrity director. He was perhaps the single most prominent member of the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of writers and directors who refused to answer questions in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about alleged involvement with the Communist Party. (It should be noted that Dmytryk did eventually testify, admit to brief membership in the party, and name members of many liberal-leaning groups.) After his run-in with HUAC, his return to filmmaking, which was done largely from England, saw him consistently confronting what had happened to him, and often doing so in very dark, depressing ways that fit in well with the general worldview of the then-popular film-noir genre. Mirage came a bit later and really is, while still dark and heavily influenced by his personal experiences, a different type of film: instead of a film-noir, Mirage is a truly Hitchcockian twisting thriller about the decline of, for lack of a better word, humanity in a profit-based, technologically advanced world.

The idea that “humanity” is gone because of technology and/or greed has existed for as long as humans have existed, and frankly it’s nothing more than golden age thinking. However, Mirage still makes its point about the dangers of a lack of humanity remarkably well. The basic plot advances the point, as do numerous remarks by characters claiming such things as that an elevator without an operator is a sign that “people are on their way out” and that a business owner sees people as nothing more than vehicles for bringing him commerce, not even giving them the recognition that a person gives to ants. It’s an excellent example of the kind of focus that many films lack.

To make his point, Dmytryk and his screenwriter employ an unusual narrative built around a protagonist who has a series of odd interpersonal exchanges, culminating with a man holding him at gunpoint in his apartment and questioning him about the whereabouts of something unnamed. After these exchanges, he begins to question his own sanity, then comes to a realization that he has actually lost his memory, though he somehow did not notice it. He knows he’s caught up in some sort of intrigue, but doesn’t know why or who the people around him are. There are numerous further realizations along the way, leading up to a thrilling finale with surprises throughout.

It’s structured much like the paranoid thrillers that would become so popular in the ‘70s, many of which were set in a world of spies and international intrigue, perhaps best exemplified by Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1975). The protagonist, David Stillwell–played by Gregory Peck, searches for information about who he is and why  someone seems to be going to great lengths to make him appear insane, but everyone he finds seems to be a part of this grand conspiracy. Stillwell is a bit too quick to decide that he knows some parts of what’s going on, but he’s not always right, which makes his quickness not just reasonable but probably an accurate depiction of what a person would feel. He lashes out against the few people who try to help him in a paranoid fog that must have felt familiar to Dmytryk after the HUAC incident.

None of the actors really has the opportunity to show much, which is probably a good thing considering the limitations that star Gregory Peck has shown in other roles. As a result, no one is particularly good; however, no one is particularly bad either. It’s a plot-based film with only one really fleshed-out character and he’s simply never in the position to show much emotion. Walter Matthau is the one sort of standout, playing a private detective trying to help out Gregory Peck. What’s really interesting is that Matthau, someone who always excelled at playing slick slimeball characters (hence his Oscar for The Fortune Cookie [Billy Wilder, USA 1966]), imbues the character with an endearing pathos that is eminently watchable and enjoyable. It’s interesting that, as a big star playing a relatively small role, Matthau really plays against type instead of doing what could have come to him easily.

Dmytryk and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald set a few scenes in total darkness with extreme light contrasts the like of which was not common even in film-noir of the time. Some of these scenes, like one of the earliest scenes in the complete darkness of a stairwell only lit by a small flashlight that’s often off frame, are intense for the feeling of the unknown that they bring out, heightening the suspense throughout the film. The rest of the time, we get a world of multiple shadows. Nearly every scene is lit so that each character is casting shadows in multiple directions, emphasizing the confusion of the plot and especially of the characters’ identities. It’s a beautiful method of adding to the film’s intrigue.

Quincy Jones’s score deserves a note, but not in a good way. While a fair amount of the film does not have score, which is an excellent choice that highlights how alone Stillwell is and the emptiness of his life without memory, the few romantic and emotional scenes are bogged down by an over-the-top, overly conventional score and the action sequences are similarly saddled with conventionality, albeit a conventionality that is not nakedly, gag-inducingly sentimental.

Overall, this was an excellent film. It may have been making a rather silly point, but it does it so phenomenally well that it’s easily forgivable. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to this film is that it’s a film Hitchcock could be jealous of. There aren’t many films that are clearly in his wheelhouse, made by someone else, and yet good enough for him to be jealous. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Cluzot, France 1955) is famously one, as Hitchcock attempted to purchase the rights to the novel before Cluzot and the authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, subsequently wrote a new novel for Hitchcock that became Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958). This film undoubtedly could be another.

Random Notes

  • Telephone cords were used to kill in quite a few movies, especially films-noir. Cordless telephones must have saved many lives, based on what I see in movies.
  • Willard is one of the most terrifying villains I’ve ever seen. A character who responds to someone else holding a comrade hostage by killing the hostage without even thinking about it and nearly kills another one by accident, responding by saying, “So?” when that character complains about almost getting shot. Particularly for an earlier age, when violence of the type we see now was not allowed, it’s a terrifying characterization.
  • Is “physio-chemist” an actual word? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Clearly it would mean someone who is a doctor of both chemistry and physics, as many nuclear scientists would have been, but I’m not sure it’s an actual word.
  • One character is greatly respected because he refused to be connected to political causes “except for world peace.” He is “courted by liberals and conservatives alike.” Difficult to imagine at this point, right?
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