Sunday, July 11, 2010

Strange Illusion (1945)


I flipped through the 100 Mystery Classics and picked this film because of its premise: using a dream to solve a crime. I was hoping to avoid a movie that would put me to sleep. Of course then I could dream up a better film.


Young Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) has a strange dream in which a shadowy man threatens his family. He cuts his vacation short and hurries home to find that his mother Virginia (Sally Eilers) is involved with the smarmy Brett Curtis (Warren William). Paul becomes convinced that Brett is up to no good. When several events from his dream take place, he begins his own investigation. Is the Curtis really a criminal in disguise – one that was put away by Paul’s dead father, the judge? Or is Paul mentally unstable, and really tearing his family apart with his strange illusions?

Good Points

  • An interesting premise that connects the dots in many places.
  • Brett Curtis is an intriguing character with some very disturbing secrets.
  • The scenes in the asylum have potential.

Bad Points

  • The music is badly edited into scenes and mixed too loud.
  • The ending is fairly obvious about fifteen minutes into the film.
  • Flaccid direction keeps things moving too slow.


What could have been a neat little film turns out to be less than the sum of its parts because of pacing. The script has too many holes in it, and a faster pace would have kept the viewers involved and ignoring those holes till after the credits roll. But the end result is film that is interesting enough to finish, but not interesting enough to remember.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects: 3

Sound Aspects: 3

Acting: 3

Music: 2

Script: 2

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Total: 2

Film Review

The idea of using a dream to solve a crime is pretty silly, but for anyone interested in the possibility of precognition, it holds some appeal. Is the future fixed? Can humans see that future? Can that ability be used to help others? All are interesting questions – and none are really explored in this film. This is going for a fun “what if” ride. Too bad it never quite pulls it off.

Director Edgar Ulmer gets things off to a bizarre start with the Jimmy’s dream sequence. It’s foggy, shadowy and creates an surreal atmosphere. Another dream ends the film and these are both handled with some creativity.

The rest of the movie follows standard film making techniques, with nothing too noir or flashy to report. It’s functional at the best. The sound falls into the same boat: creative during the dreams, and functional otherwise.

On the acting front it isn’t a bad time. Jimmy Lydon is good as Paul Cartwright. He reminds me quite a bit of Robert Lowell as Jimmy Wilson in I Accuse My Parents. He’s very sincere and looks a little too old to be playing a college student. The other actor of interest is Warren William as Brett Curtis. The man just oozes smarm and slime. You don’t’ trust him the minute he appears and he does nothing but confirm your suspicions with each passing scene. The rest of the cast is average. I did like Jimmy Clark as Paul’s friend George. He had the ah-shucks sidekick thing down cold.

Now we start getting into the below average points. Let’s start with the music, on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s a bit overdone, but that’s typical of 40’s scores. The real problem is that it is matched poorly to certain scenes. Sinister music plays in scenes where nothing sinister is happening and vice versa. On top of that the music is mixed very loud, drowning out dialogue in many scenes.

There were a couple interesting elements to the script. I was a bit surprised at the approach for Curtis’ character. It’s implied pretty clearly that he likes young women. He’s often seen leering at Paul’s sister Dorothy and Paul’s girlfriend Lydia. In a later scene Lydia describes how Curtis was in the pool with her, grabbed her, held her under water in a strangle hold and kissed her over and over again. It’s a chilling revelation, and one that seals the deal for Curtis (if there was any doubt about him… see below). But I was surprised that this type of thing could be discussed and implied in a movie in the 40’s.

I was also interested to see the way the asylum was portrayed in the film. There’s a two-way mirror and a bugged vent, something I thought was more a modern convention.

The script is not as tight as it should be. The main crime here has several parts. First Paul’s father was murdered and it was made to look like an accident. Second, Paul’s mother is going to marry the shady Curtis. Third, Curtis plans on destroying the family from within and obtaining the wealth from the Cartwright family. It’s elaborate and requires quite a few things to occur perfectly for the crime to be pulled off. Needless to say, suspension of disbelief is severely tested.

On the flip side, Paul is supposed to use the clues from his dream as well as deductive skill and research to solve the mysteries. The only problem is that the dream acts as a kind of dues-ex-machina, popping up whenever it’s convenient, and patching some of the more serious holes.

Unfortunately the director really drops the ball. Ulmer meanders from scene to scene giving the viewer time to wonder about plot holes. How was Curtis able to change his identity so completely? Why does one else seem to realize that Curtis is so darn oily? Is there anything that the dream won’t reveal that the perfect moment?

No attempt is made to make Curtis appear anything other than the villain. You know he’s up to no good the minute he’s introduced. William plays the part as the sleazy and smarmy as you can imagine. He’s a great villain, but Ulmer should have had him dial it down at the beginning, so a little suspense could be generated. Instead the mystery is pretty much nixed within 15 minutes.

This robs the film of entertainment value. The dream is a double-edged sword, adding an interesting element and yet a too convenient one. The viewer ends up watching to see how the dream elements play out, not to find out if Jimmy and his family make it out of the situation. It’s a slow film, not horrible, but never really clicking the way it could have.

James Lilieks thought it moved a little faster than I did, but he liked it about the same. Check out his review here.

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