Mirage

MIRAGE, a mildly engaging amnesia-centered suspenser from 1965, is usually dispensed with as an “Oh, yeah, forgot about that one” item in the resume of Gregory Peck, with some obligatory mention made of a few of the noteworthy co-stars. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, the script was done by Peter Stone, fresh off Charade (and an Oscar grab for Father Goose). It came from “Fallen Angel”, a short 1951 novel written by Howard Fast under the pseudonym Walter Ericson, reprinted as “The Darkness Within”.  The gimmick plays like a somewhat upscale ‘Twilight Zone‘ episode, in that ‘Who Am I/Who Are You/What The Hell…?’ mode keeping mixed company from the era, ranging from The Manchurian Candidate to Seconds and The Swimmer. Hardly as compelling as those worthies, it at least manages the paranoia aspect better than dreary fellow ’65 patients Mister Buddwing (more amnesia), Mickey One, Brainstorm and The Third Day—amnesia again!  *

Well, maybe the machines will keep us around for pets.”

A power blackout at the Manhattan skyscraper he works in and the unexplained plummet-to-pavement of his boss coincide with memory blanks that beset accountant ‘David Stillwell’ (Peck). Not enough that people he knows don’t recognize him: others he can’t place are so keenly interested in him they brandish threats backed by guns. What gives? Who’s the mystery woman (Diane Baker) named ‘Shela’? What’s with the thugs (Jack Weston, George Kennedy) named ‘Lester’ and ‘Willard’? Why can’t he get help from the police, a psychiatrist or co-workers? Maybe private eye ‘Ted Caselle’ (Walter Matthau) can help him piece himself together? What might “World Peace” have to do with it?

Initially intriguing, but by the time the baffled hero puts his mental jigsaw together at the finish there are too many plot-convenient encounters and escapes that elude practical logic. They leave shrugs rather than shivers, a package where the wrapping job—some good lines here and there, a few diverting photographic angles and welcome contributions from the cast—are more impressive than the gift: “Oh, great, socks…I can always use ’em. Gee, thanks, Aunt Margie.”

Diane Baker was attractive and capable, but she never struck enough spark to light flames as a leading lady. Peck’s more durable than dynamic; fans know he played another amnesia victim accused of murder, twenty years earlier, in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Word has it he pressed screenwriter Stone for wittier banter like that given Cary Grant in Charade, entailing a chore to finesse considering the differing styles the two iconic actors had. He does get to make a ‘current events’ crack about James Bond. **

Much more of interest are the secondary characters played by Matthau, Weston and Kennedy. As the skeptical but helpful private eye, Matthau, on the cusp of breaking big with The Fortune Cookie, makes a good light counterpoint to Peck’s angst. Kennedy had done dirty deed duty with Matthau in Charade,  and was still mostly stuck in bad guy harness—he was nasty in ’65 in The Sons Of Katie Elder. But cracks were beginning to open for the 39-year-old trouper: that same year he was allowed to be a good fellow in The Flight Of The Phoenix, In Harm’s Way and Shenandoah. Still, but he’s a brute in Mirage. Sly and sweaty Weston has a good line, watching wrestling on TV: “Eh, now that all the Westerns have gone psycho, this is the only place where you can tell who the bad guys are.”

DAVID: “I think the entire buildings gone mad. Everyone’s running around trying to rescind the Ten Commandments.”  SHELA: “I’ve never understood why most people will do things in the dark, that they’d never think of doing in the light.”  DAVID: “I’d explain it to you, but, I’m afraid the lights might come back on.”   SHELA: “No, I’m serious. If we can lie, cheat, steal, and kill in broad daylight and have to wait until it’s dark to make love, something’s wrong somewhere.”

Quincy Jones score clangs too much on the obvious, but the doings are well-photographed by Joseph MacDonald, who teamed with Dmytryk eight times. He does what he can to work around with the bland set design. Reviews were polite, but, spoiled by action-packed, sexy & dazzling alternatives such as Thunderball, audiences didn’t materialize: the gross of $4,100,000 only put it into 66th place for the year. ***

With Kevin McCarthy (being smarmy), Leif Erickson (never the pillar of excitement), Robert H. Harris (baldly overplaying), Walter Able, Anne Seymour, Hari Rhodes, Ann Doran. 108 minutes.

* Baker, on Dmytryk: “He was a really bright man and very talented, but he was very calm and quiet during the making of this. It was almost as if he was subdued.”  Screenwriter Stone chipped in: “I don’t think he was concentrating on the picture. It doesn’t have any directorial style.”  Peck: “It needed a much more modern kind of photographic approach and less literalness….It was all a trick—a shell game. So I think it should have been treated more as a cinematic ballet of suspense.”

** Following this effort, Stone would write the script for Arabesque, breezier escapism starring Peck, in color, with the attention-seizing Sophia Loren: it fared better. Diane Baker was pretty and earnest, but unexciting (a brunette Joanne Woodward), blandly acceptable as a supporting actress in several pictures—notably The Diary Of Anne Frank, The Best Of Everything, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Marnie. If only she hadn’t been so awful in The 300 Spartans ! Granted, there she was mismatched with the even more wooden Barry Coe—Zeus forbid a movie buff should hold a grudge since ancient 1962 A.D….

*** Did you see it, or was it…a mirage? The property was remade for TV just three years later, then dumped into theaters as 1968’s Jigsaw, this time with Fast credited as the author of the original story and Stone for his earlier screenplay adaptation of Mirage while the new screenwriter (Ranald MacDougall) hid his own name under the pseudonym Quentin Werty. In that hippie-updated knockoff (Bradford Dillmann, Harry Guardino, Hope Lange, Michael J. Pollard), the dreaded “L.S.D.” is in play. We imagine flashback help from that twi-lit zone would be the best way to piece together Jigsaw.

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