Pop psychology was no stranger to American Golden Age cinema. With the growing popularity of Freud and his compatibility to story – many psychologists claim that his ideas work better in the narrative tradition than real life – analysis would inspire the action of many a film. The Warner’s gangster pics used Freudian issues to explain criminality, with “Scarface’s” Tony Camonte obsessed with his sister and Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello too fond of his buddy. Soon after, noir featured the emergence of perversion, brought forth by a femme fatale or the anti-hero’s fatal mistake.

The now-celebrated Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer is best known for “Detour” (1945), a cheapie noir detailing an obsession leading to downfall. As Al (Tom Neal) must reach his beloved, in California, he hitchhikes west to leave himself vulnerable to an accusation of murder, of the shady guy driving him. When Al picks up quasi-fatale Vera (Ann Savage) in the victim’s car, she’s wise to the missing party and the fact that Al has taken his identity. Ulmer fit right into the noir milieu, in which determined misfits would only flounder. In the shadow of James M. Cain’s influence (though his popular novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and Billy Wilder’s refined film adaptation of his story, “Double Indemnity”), Ulmer matched the success, even on the quick and cheap for the studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC).

Earlier the same year, Ulmer produced another obsession-fueled crime story, one with pop-psychology at the foreground. “Strange Illusion” presents a murder immediately, as an element of backstory revealed through a portentous dream sequence – before Hitchcock stamped his name on the motif with the help of Dali in “Spellbound.” In Ulmer’s dreamscape, Paul sees a shadowy figure walking alongside his mother, before an approaching train derails and the moment veers toward night terror. With the crashing symbol associated to both fate and the phallic, it’s no surprise that Paul is mourning his dead father. Associations to “Hamlet” come right away, as a doomed son is convinced that mom’s current man took down dad. The Oedipal anxiety is ripe material for a revenge narrative, though Shakespeare’s left his ironic hero on the killing floor, while Ulmer delivers a resolution friendlier to 40s cinema.

“Illusion” shows Ulmer adapting a generic pattern – revenge, via Shakespeare – with the sense of freedom that keeps genre traditions unique. The filmmaker does so without abandoning or demeaning his predecessor, which also asserts the power of genre tradition.

After awakening, Paul lives a fairly bucolic, anti-noir existence, while fishing with a doctor-mentor friend. When Paul encounters his seamy stepdad, the milieu feels like a set-up for domestic comedy. Paul has a steady girl, and scenes with his sister color family life. Though Brett is too fond of Paul’s girl, while the dead father’s portrait looms large in the living room, like a deceased king beckoning one to avenge him. Soon after, mother asks the help to take the portrait down, to a storage area. As we’d expect, mom and son are very close in one scene, playing on the Oedipal strain inherent when reworking “Hamlet.” Like a woman in the age of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” she looks mostly confused as Brett pushes for marriage. Paul’s indecisive panic leads to his collapse at a formal dinner, upon which mother and Brett decide he needs time in an institution – a semi-banishment reflecting the Danish prince’s.

Brett, played by Warren William (who could stand in for a young Vincent Price), turns out to be quite the schemer, as his cohort, Muhlback, runs the psyche ward. Ulmer provides access to the two heavies trying to cover what is obviously the murder in question. As the point of view moves away from Paul in this scene, it weakens the focus on his obsession, making this noir momentarily feeling more like melodrama. Yet, Ulmer adds visual intrigue to what at first feels like objective realism. By keeping the background at a sizable distance, he frames his actors in medium shot to place them in an off-putting realm. Ulmer also lets objects intrude into the extreme foreground, perhaps cribbed from Hitchcock if not picked up in the former’s homeland milieu, Weimar Germany.

Paul must go to a looking-glass in his room for an escape, and “Strange Illusion” continues the analysis to the finale, another dream sequence to bookend the film. Though saddled with the script’s fetish for Freud, Ulmer stylizes his thriller without sending it adrift. Like his other great films, “Strange Illusion” is a shaggy quickie that takes fine shape throughout.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon