Strange Illusion

Jimmy Lydon in Strange Illusion (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945).

This variation on Hamlet is one of those films where a low budget and bad acting cannot alone account for the peculiar stilted and unreal quality of the mise en scène--there must be genius involved. Ulmer, you'll recall, was a designer for Max Reinhardt's theater and an assistant to Murnau. He became known for his ability to film movies on a six-day schedule (although Strange Illusion took thirteen). His masterpiece is arguably the hard-noir Detour (1944); strong cases could also be made for The Black Cat (1934) and a handful of others. It's unlikely that anyone would claim that position for Strange Illusion, but there is a kind of pleasure in it that few other films offer. It's tempting to imagine that David Lynch was influenced by its weirdly slow cadences and unheimlich staging. Lydon's character Paul Cartwright has a lot of similarities to Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, for example. These two films share an oblique indulgence in Hardy-Boys-style gee-whiz mystery hijinx, in which the intrepid young sleuth-in-the-making channels his fascination with the dark criminal underworld through his murky "father issues." The dream sequences that frame the story are the most obvious stylistic indices of Ulmer's ability to think beyond the merely narrative elements of the theme, but there is enough psychoanalytic skullduggery and Oedipal delirium throughout to maintain a general sense of surreality. Warren Williams is the consummate dastard as a usurping Claudius figure, and Sally Eilers is his Gertrude, whom everyone refers to (including her children) as "The Princess." Cherish the scene where Lydon breaks spontaneously over the phone into forties white teen hipster slang ("Hello vixen, what's mixin'?") as the wiretapping villains listen in in square bewilderment.

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