Alfred Hitchcock put such a stamp on the suspense thriller genre that his name has become synonymous with it. Many a director has since had to put up with the label of “Hitchcockian” when they try their hand at making a thriller. Hitchcock pioneered so many techniques, scenarios and effects as to leave little room for improvement for his heirs. Very few subsequent films that try to mimic his style come close to the original at his peak. Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage (1965) certainly doesn’t rank with the best of Hitch’s work, but it’s a clever and engrossing example of the sort of “innocent man on the run” formula that Hitchcock practically patented with films like The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).
Star Gregory Peck was no stranger to this kind of film, having himself appeared in two Hitchcock movies earlier in his career, Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), as well as the later Stanley Donen spy yarn, Arabesque (1966). Mirage acts as an interesting bookend to Spellbound, films made 20 years apart but both featuring a protagonist suffering from amnesia brought on by a traumatic event, on the run from sinister forces. While Spellbound is a more melodramatic piece, focused more on mood and romance, Mirage is satisfied with being a straightforward, entertaining and fast-moving thriller, full of twists and turns and lots of peril for poor old Gregory Peck.
The movie opens with the towering Unidyne building in downtown New York suddenly having a power blackout. While many employees take advantage of the situation to scurry off to impromptu petting parties, David Stillwell (Peck), flashlight in hand, goes looking for the exit. In the stairwell of the 27th floor, he meets a woman, Shela (Diana Baker) who claims to know him, but David insists he’s never met her before. They descend to the ground floor together, where Shela gets a good look at his face. “I knew it was you!” she cries. “That was a terrible joke.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” David replies. Shela angrily runs downstairs. David follows her down to Sub level 4, but when she doesn’t reply to his calls, soon gives up and goes out onto the street.
Diane Baker and Peck descend into darkness.
There he sees a mass of people surrounding a body on the pavement. It seems a man has fallen from somewhere high up in the building. David heads across the street to a bar and orders “the usual” from a puzzled-looking bartender who obviously hasn't seen him for some time. Overhearing some businessmen talking about the apparent suicide jumper. David finishes his drink and heads back to the office building, which now has the power turned back on. He heads into the building and tries to go downstairs, only to discover that there isn’t any 4th sub-basement. Or a 3rd, or even a 2nd. There's only one basement floor, which leads into a generator room, where a big, intimidating workman (George Kennedy) tells him to beat it. This little mystery is just the beginning of David Stillwell’s escalating nightmare.
David stops by to chat with security guard Joe Turtle (Neil Fitzgerald), who tells him that whoever the jumper was, he was some kind of V.I.P. It turns out the victim was one Charles Calvin, a famous public figure working for "world peace." Later, while heading home on the train, David sees a newspaper headline about Calvin's apparent suicide, which triggers a sudden mental flash, clearly from David's own POV, of Calvin falling toward the street below.
David returns to his apartment only to be strong-armed at gunpoint by a thug named Lester (Jack Weston), who tells him “the Major” wants to see him...in Barbados. David manages to overpower Lester and, exhausted by his strange day, falls asleep on his sofa, first disposing of Lester's pistol and hat. He’s awakened the next morning by a phone call from his glib co-worker Josephson (Kevin McCarthy). David gets another surprise when he find his refrigerator completely empty, and no clothes in his closet.
He goes to the police station to report Lester's attack, but storms off when asked to supply his date of birth and other personal information which he can’t seem to remember. He makes an appointment to consult a psychiatrist, Dr. Broden. Killing time at the Central Park zoo, he sees Shela again.
It’s soon clear she’s been following him, and that she knows a lot more about what’s going on than she’s willing to tell him. “Who’s the Major?” David demands. “If you don’t know, my telling isn’t going to help,” she replies.
When he tries to explain his problem to Dr. Broden, eventually confessing that he thinks he’s somehow had amnesia for the past two years, the abrasive psychiatrist throws him out of his office. “There’s no such thing as the type of amnesia you describe. There never has been, and there never will.”
Walter Matthau is delightful as P.I. Ted Caselle.
Desperate to find out what’s going on, David spies a sign for the "AAA Detective Agency" and hires rookie gumshoe Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau). “You’re my first case,” Caselle admits. "Terrific," an exasperated David replies.
Caselle asks to see Stillwell’s apartment, only now there’s plenty of food in his refrigerator, clothes hanging in the closet, and Lester’s gun and hat are missing. At first skeptical, Caselle quickly becomes convinced there’s something to David’s story.
As Caselle starts to dig deeper into the case, Stillwell goes looking for Joe Turtle. He meets up with Shela again and she reluctantly agrees to take him to Joe’s apartment. David finds him, all right - nastily murdered by one of the Major’s hired killers. David’s been set up, left with Turtle’s blood on his hands and the cops on the way...
Who is the Major? What does he want with David? Where exactly has David been for the past two years? And what connection does all this have to the apparent suicide of Charles Calvin?
More importantly, is there anyone whom David can trust?
Edward Dmytryk directs Mirage with a sure hand. He's not the master stylist that Hitchcock was, there’s nothing particularly ingenious in the the way the film is shot, but the movie shows the handiwork of a confident craftsman. This is pure escapist entertainment, told with minimal fuss and clutter, which unfolds its tricks and traps and revelations like a well-oiled machine. Dmytryk made a lot of good films in his lengthy career, among them the terrific Murder, My Sweet, as well as Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County and The Young Lions.
Probably the most effective technical aspect is the editing (by Ted J. Kent), which boasts some adroit quick cutting between the regular action and a number of flashback scenes, doled out at increasingly rapid intervals, each a puzzle piece used to illustrate David’s slowly returning memory.
Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as the confused hero. Almost more than any actor one can think of, Peck’s screen presence communicates an instant trustworthy nature. With a body of work behind him as a noble, stalwart figure, he commands immediate audience sympathy. We recognize this guy, and we trust him implicitly. The film plays with these audience preconceptions a little bit., as events seem to point to David's direct involvement in Calvin's death. Peck manages to be convincingly put-upon and stressed out as the noose tightens, while still maintaining his trademark dignity and sense of humor. The film gets pretty dark and increasingly dangerous as the stakes continue to raise for David and anyone who tries to help him, yet in true Hitchcockian fashion, there is still plenty of room for witty dialogue, especially when Matthau's private eye comes into the picture.
Matthau easily earns his special "and" billing, creating a charming nebbish of a detective and promptly stealing every scene he's in with practiced expertise. A true sign of a breakoutl supporting character is whether that character would be worth watching as the star of their own film. I would gladly watch any number of "Ted Caselle" mysteries, that's how engaging Matthau is. He and Peck create a winning double act.
Diane Baker makes for an attractive mystery woman. Baker, 22 years Peck's junior in this film, nonetheless demonstrates an effective blend of maturity and vulnerability. While their scenes of verbal fencing and romance don't approach the sort of sparks given off between the likes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (or Kelly and James Stewart in Rear Window), they have decent chemistry together, and Baker manages to keep just enough of an aura of duplicity to keep us guessing as to her true intentions. Baker of course has her own Hitchcock connection, appearing in 1964's flawed but fascinating Marnie.
One of Mirage's chief assets is the strong supporting cast. Kevin McCarthy brings his usual slick, shyster poise to the part of Josephson. Jack Weston has some fun moments as the loquacious but dangerous Lester. George Kennedy is all beefy, snarling menace as the bruiser Willard, and House Jameson has a memorable couple of scenes as an over-the-hill hired assassin. Robert B. Harris makes for a believably surly shrink, and Walter Abel plays most of his scenes as Calvin in brief flashbacks. Hari Rhodes also features in a brief bit as a seen-it-all police lieutenant. And gravel-voiced Leif Erickson makes an effective late appearance as "the Major," the ruthless puppet master behind all the mysterious goings-on.
House Jameson as an elderly assassin.
Peter Stone's sharp screenplay (based off the novel "Fallen Angel" by Howard Fast) is one of the other standout things about the film. All the funny back-and-forth between Peck and Matthau is great, but everyone gets their fair share of good lines. From Kevin McCarthy's corporate smoothie constantly calling David "bubbie" and "sweetheart," to House Jameson's snarled admonition to David to not let his advanced years fool him, "Don't look so surprised...There ain't any social security in this line of work," the script captures the hard-boiled ethos of both Fifth Avenue boardrooms and the criminal underbelly of New York City.
The first hour or so of the film is gripping stuff, very effectively building up a sense of bizarre mystery. We're with David every step of the way, as more and more strange and alarming things happen to him. It's only at the very end when things begin to unravel a bit. Like many "conspiracy" capers of this kind, when all is explained in the final resolution, we're left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, the final motive perhaps a tad too prosaic, the plot mechanics overly elaborate. There are a few plot holes and inconsistencies which may niggle the more logically-minded, but those willing to go along for the ride will find much to enjoy here.
While overall I prefer Stanley Donen's more stylish espionage lark, Arabesque (and the stunning Sophia Loren easily out-glams Diane Baker), Mirage has a lot going for it. It's a more grounded, "realistic" sort of thriller than Arabesque, featuring a more memorable gallery of rogues and allies. I'm quite happy to have both films (in the same DVD boxed set) in my collection. Both are good showcases for Gregory Peck's talents as a sympathetic leading man, less stiff and more humorous types than he's usually given a chance to portray. Frankly, I prefer these two exciting and skillful "Hitchcockian" riffs to Peck's actual films for Hitchcock, neither of which show the Master at his best.
DVD Note: Universal's DVD of Mirage looks very nice indeed, with a lustrous widescreen black and white transfer. The film is available in its own DVD edition, but an even better option is the affordable and highly-recommended Gregory Peck Film Collection, which includes Mirage along with To Kill a Mockingbird, Cape Fear, Arabesque, Captain Newman, M.D. and The World in His Arms.
This post is my contribution to the Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Classic Becky’s Brain Food. Head over there for a list of the many fine contributors.
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