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Savant Short Review:

Strange Illusion

Strange Illusion
All Day
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat/ 87/85m. Out of the Night
Starring Jimmy Lydon, Warren William, Sally Eilers
Cinematography Philip Tannura
Art Direction Paul Palmentola
Film Editor Carl Pierson
Original Music Leo Erdody
Writing credits Adele Comandini from a story by Fritz Rotter
Produced by Leon Fromkess
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of Edgar G. Ulmer's most celebrated PRC (Producer's Releasing Corporation) quickies, Strange Illusion is a weird and original noir thriller with interesting qualities that overcome its low budget and somewhat awkward script. All Day Entertainment has brought out a number of rare Ulmer titles (The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll) as part of a general Ulmer revival. Thanks to the efforts of his daughter Arianné Ulmer Cipes, her 'fringe' director father's colorful films are now more accessible than ever.


College student Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) worries about a recurring dream in which a shadowy man has beguiled both his widowed mother Virginia (Sally Eilers) and his easily-impressed sister Dorothy (Jayne Hazard). His late father reportedly died in an accident, but details in Paul's dream, such as a distinctive bracelet and a piece of music, mysteriously have counterparts in real life. Paul begins to suspect that his mother's new beau Brett Curtis (Warren William) is in fact a scoundrel, and that his father was murdered by him. Encouraged by family friend Dr. Vincent (Regis Toomey) to clear up the mystery, Paul allows himself to become a 'guest' at the psychiatric clinic of Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), not knowing that Muhlbach and Curtis are associates in crime.

One's first reaction is, what kind of crazy movie is this? Made in 1945, it has a feel that wavers between stiff 1930s melodrama, and something out of a German expressionist silent. The acting is fairly unsophisticated, the production rather cramped for funds (but an epic alongside Detour, made the same year) and the script rather stiff, with particularly painful and dated lingo between the young actors. Strange Illusion definitely has that PRC 'air of unreality' about it, an 'almost a movie' weirdness that was only equalled by PRC's poverty row competitor Monogram.

Strange Illusion's psychoanalytical plot is at its basis more sophisticated than other Hollywood attempts to dumb down Herr Freud (like Hitchcock's ridiculous Spellbound of the same year) and almost overcomes some clunky writing. According to Arianné Ulmer Cipes, Ulmer knew he was doing a psychiatric version of Hamlet, with the confused prince feigning an emotional breakdown to investigate the suspected murderers of his revered father. This parallel makes the story more fun even as it becomes more obvious. Not helping is leading player Jimmy Lydon, a not particularly convincing actor best known for his Henry Aldrich movies, a series that aped MGM's Andy Hardy and was much more popular on the radio. Likewise, Warren William and Charles Arndt are painfully obvious villains, with lothario William so oily, it makes Lydon's mother Sally Eilers seem like a dolt for getting within ten paces of him. In the middle of a tight spot, Williams' Brett Curtis character turns into the Big Bad Wolf to prey on sister Dorothy, like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Even by 1945 standards, there's no subtlety whatsoever in the general playing ... if you wish to take the story as a naturalistic drama.

What makes Strange Illusion interesting is the audacity of its storytelling. With nothing to lose commercially, PRC gave Ulmer the freedom to be different. The framing device is a shadowy dreamland with a nightmare image of a silhouetted evil stepfather. The clues from this dream, which include a vision of his father's murder, are visualized representations of Paul Cartwright's unconscious intuitions. Following in his father's investigative footsteps, Paul's subconscious is trying to help him solve the mystery that his 'nice' surface self won't acknowledge. This naturally causes an emotional disturbance, as Paul's unspeakable suspicion is that his dad was murdered, and by the same killer who's seducing both his sister and mom. This pegs Strange Illusion as 100% film noir, as Paul's predicament is an unresolveable nightmare; how does a kid of unproven judgement tell his mother and sister what he suspects, without branding himself an oedipal nutcase?

If you read noir analysis, the oedipal theme is all over this picture, whereas Ulmer and his writer Adele Comandini keep it underneath where it belongs. Instead, Paul goes undercover in an asylum to get the goods on the villains, just as Hamlet feigned mild derangement. In 1945, when voluntary admission to Betty Ford clinics and the like did not yet exist, the idea of purposely entering a nuthouse must have seemed like proof of insanity in itself, so for richness of ideas this is the story's best turn. Paul must outwit his captors in a locked room with a Cocteau-ish one-way mirror. Of course, it's a PRC asylum: one doctor, one nurse, and one patient visible. That's not good if you want realism but very interesting if you're an ambitious film analyst wishing to interpret Strange Illusion as the ravings of a demented youth who has invented a crazy conspiracy as a way of keeping his young, attractive mother to himself. As in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the villains are so obvious and the story emotions so centered on Paul (why's doctor Vincent doing nothing but tending to him?) that it's tempting to seek out a mindbending interpretation, just for academic jollies. Mind you, unless you're already a film freak looking for this kind of irony, what you'll see in Strange Illusion is a dated but expressive drama.

All Day's DVD of Strange Illusion is a smart packaging of one of Ulmer's weirdest. Advertised as from 35mm elements, the image quality is not bad, but looks more like good 16mm. The dream sequences have lots of superimposed smoke that fluctuates in a way to suggest that the original film opticals were to blame for the variable quality there. There is some slight film damage along the way. The audio has been given a good cleaning and is very clear. For extras there's a selection of Ulmer trailers and a nice docu about Edgar G.'s working relationship with PRC. The docu is All Day's best effort in video production to date and is nicely edited by Stephen Fournier. It offers the best explanation of Studio maudit PRC that Savant has heard to date (for the basics, start with the book The Kings of the B's by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn). To top it off, the package includes a miniature reproduction of the movie's entire 1945 pressbook, that you'll need a magnifying glass to enjoy.

A strange cross between Hamlet, Andy Hardy, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Strange Illusion is an arcane treat for the more adventurous film explorer. But be aware that they've only started with this strangest of all the great directors: Someday, somehow, an alternative DVD company will bring out Ulmer's bizarre last film, the 20th-Fox released 'Scope exercise in terminal weirdness, The Cavern.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Strange Illusion rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: docu 'The King of PRC', stills, trailers, pressbook reproduction
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 23, 2001

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