Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Happens To People

Sometimes I’m just easy to please. For example, when during the very first frames of MIRAGE with that old-school Universal logo in black & white as the first Quincy Jones sting hitting the soundtrack, I’m hooked. And I can’t imagine that I won’t like what immediately follows. Released in 1965, MIRAGE isn’t ranked among the classic thrillers of its era and it really isn’t one of them anyway. It’s safe to say that the film isn’t all that well known these days as if after opening to a decent response from the world (“…an interesting, fairly taut, if not especially credible, chase mystery” so said A.H. Weiler in the New York Times review) it then slipped away, just another film that for whatever reason hasn’t become as well-regarded as others have. I recently revisited it for the first time in about a decade—I’m pretty sure the first viewing years ago was when I was investigating the career of screenwriter Peter Stone—and found it to be even better than I remembered, the sort of film that I’d gladly recommend to anyone looking for a mid-60s thriller that they haven’t stumbled across yet. The icy cool that comes off of every frame offers a certain MAD MEN vibe in all the right ways and if AMC was a network which had any interest in programming films into their lineup that would tie into that show this would be an ideal choice. It’s not set in the world of advertising but its presentation of men in suits occupying a New York high rise in that decade definitely gives a similar impression, as well as more than a few evocative glimpses at a type of New York that feels more and more in the past all the time. There just aren’t enough black & white movies actually filmed on location there and maybe this element is something that strikes me as much as anything—even if the film is set in a city that has drained the basic humanity out of people the more I watch the film the more I desperately wish that I could step into it to wander around this Manhattan for a little while, as long as it remained in this sort of monochrome. MIRAGE isn’t a great movie and I’m not trying to make a claim that it’s anything particularly extraordinary but it is a good, slick, entertaining piece of work that feels like it’s maybe fallen through the cracks past the other films that ther world seems to remember, things like CHARADE. At the very least, sometimes it seems worth pointing out that a certain film exists.

Acting strangely when a blackout in the New York office building in which he works and after famed humanitarian Charles Calvin falls to his death from the place as well in a presumed suicide, cost accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) goes home to find a mysterious man (Jack Weston) pulling a gun on him and insisting they’re going to take a little trip together. After overpowering the man and with no idea of what is happening David comes to the realization that he has had amnesia for the past two years. Several times he meets a mysterious woman named Shela (Diane Baker), one of the first people he met during that black out in an encounter involving a staircase to a basement that later disappeared, but she’s of no help to him, only making references to someone named ‘The Major’. Having no luck when he goes to the police and even a psychiatrist who insists that no one could possibly have amnesia for two years, on a whim David decides to hire novice private detective Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau) to find out who he is, why somebody might actually want him dead and what really caused his amnesia.

Writing out a brief plot synopsis is usually my least favorite part of these things even if sometimes helps me sort out the film a little better. And while a film with a plot that can be easily synopsized is by no means a prerequisite the twisty nature of this film does make it somewhat difficult since it leaves so much unspoken right from the start, set in a world where people’s names are easily forgotten what with these anonymous businessmen in suits carrying briefcases have all blended together into one inhuman mass. It’s clear that something is up right from the get go with an off-kilter opening set in a blackout with a main character who finds himself in the dark both literally and figuratively—since he knows who he is there’s more going on than a case of simple amnesia but there’s no way to be sure exactly what and almost immediately the film begins to lay out its cards in intriguing style. As the clues begin to fall into place MIRAGE forms itself into an extremely engaging thriller at its very best with a screenplay by Peter Stone (based on a story by Walter Ericson) that correctly balances the mystery and a certain strain of wit that also helps to keep us off guard. Stone’s many credits also include the romantic caper CHARADE, which does seem to be a confirmed classic for the known world as well as personal favorite THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE—of course, Walter Matthau is a common link between each of these films as well and to stretch a point MIRAGE could almost be a sort of bridge between the old-school caper qualities of the earlier film and the harsher New York of PELHAM ONE TWO THREE several years later which feels like it’s abandoned the sleek office buildings of this film for the unrelenting madness the city had found itself in by the seventies. Matthau’s introduction here actually seems like a deliberate mirror of his first scene in CHARADE, even if his character does go in a different direction, and like that other film MIRAGE also has a comically menacing trio out to get the lead here played enjoyably by Weston, House Jameson and none other than George Kennedy, yet another carryover from CHARADE.

Unlike that film and the later ARABESQUE (also with Peck and co-written by Peter Stone under a pseudonym) the wit in MIRAGE is kept at a lower and drier key, while still very much present, and it never focuses quite so much on the romance angle--it could almost be looked at as a flaw that Diane Baker sort of straddles the line between being a romantic lead and supporting player as well as one whose behavior doesn’t always entirely make sense but maybe MIRAGE never goes down that path to keep us in the dark as much as the film’s own lead is. On first glance the entire plot seems like more of a shell game than anything which isn’t entirely incorrect since it’s the sort of mystery where everything seems more intriguing before it gets explained and never becomes quite as bizarre as maybe it could have, with simple flashes back to people saying key pieces of dialogue as Stillwell begins to make sense of them. THE CAINE MUTINY’s Edward Dmytryk directed, maybe not the sort of journeyman to go to if you’re looking for ultra-stylish Hitchcockian delirium but maybe that’s not what the film needed anyway since as things play his square filmmaking style matches up somewhat with Peck’s own personality. Another director might have played up the witticisms even more but Dmytryk keeps a hold on the main character’s desperation as opposed to observing him bemused from a distance and it keeps the suspense going, even while the genial wisecracks offered by Matthau prevent the tone from getting too weighed down as Quincy Jones’ music goes for a more menacing, jazzier feel than a Mancini score might have and it compliments the visuals perfectly with its vibe. Not everything about MIRAGE holds and maybe the deliberate coldness is part of the reason—the romance never seems to matter all that much and this isn’t the sort of film where it would make sense to stop while a Henry Mancini love theme is warbled anyway so maybe the ending comes off as a little too pat. For that matter, I just watched it and still can’t quite remember exactly what Shela’s role is when everything finally gets revealed. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. But the storyline is a grabber with a jagged uncertainty brought to Peck’s various encounters with people he doesn’t remember, particularly in the first half, and it’s a film that really deserves to be better known.

There’s also the peripheral enjoyment that comes from all that New York location work like a chase through Central Park or even just random shots of Gregory Peck wandering around the city and even from some of the extras—I’m particularly intrigued by a guy who seems to be looking right at the camera as it moves past him at 6:48-52. Released in 1965, the period does seem a little late for a back & white film which makes me wonder if that has something to do with why it isn’t better known now, like it didn’t get many TV airings as a result (Director of Photography was Joseph MacDonald whose many credits include MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, NIAGARA, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?)—it’s easy to imagine a color version having the same flat, faded look as most Universal films of the period so it’s dated that much better since they didn’t. Because of the nature of its look, the film’s inherent squareness feels oddly adventurous and the stark monochrome look used feels absolutely right for this world, this New York which was even then changing rapidly from the ramshackle office where the likes of Matthau’s Caselle works out of (his office is at Columbus Circle in the location where it looks like the Gulf & Western Building would be built just a few years later) to the ultra modern skyscrapers that would soon fully take over the city. It’s a place where people are more comfortable among others remaining literally in the dark, where friends don’t seem to be friends and everyone eventually becomes a part of this landscape with no one able to tell if any of these men wearing suits up in these high rises have disappeared for years or have been in the next office over the whole time. MIRAGE is set in a harsh world, a cold world, where the suits have begun to blend together and enough is starting to become automated that they’re already wondering if people are on their way out through some intriguingly prescient running comments regarding automation and globalization, where paying someone means more than actually thanking them and where anything that doesn’t seem designed to shape more people into becoming just another faceless suit is the stuff of useless trivia as well as how individuals don’t really matter anymore: “You almost got me!” shouts someone to a guman who’s on his side. “So?” is the response. How much do we want to remember? How much do we want to face who we really are in this world that seems to want to rob us of our humanity? How much do we want to admit to what kind of human being we aren’t? Even if all it feels like in the end is a series of plot devices laid out building to revelations that feel explained so literally they maybe don’t have the necessary impact, with maybe the most likable character done away with and completely forgotten about when ‘THE END’ hits the screen, well, it is entertaining and maybe even improves on repeat viewings when you can stop focusing on that shell game and just lose yourself in that sleek office building vibe.

Running around New York in his grey suit Gregory Peck isn’t quite Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST but I suppose the comparison isn’t fair—unlike that film the character of David Stillwell is meant to be haunted by this predicament of not knowing who he is and Peck commands the screen at every moment as he tries to figure things out. With the romance not quite the focus it would be in something like ARABESQUE which teamed Sophia Loren with Peck, Diane Baker (a year after MARNIE) while always beguiling at times seems a little unsure as to just how much of an enigmatic quality the script is asking her to project but her cool demeanor fits right in to this environment and her uncertainty of this world seems projected into her own uncertainty. Coming shortly before he exploded in THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE ODD COUPLE, Walter Matthau is dynamite as Caselle, bringing a new energy the moment he walks onscreen that makes things much more fun. He doesn’t steal the movie so much as just walk away with it in his jacket pocket along with that Dr. Pepper he orders instead of scotch, making one more wisecrack while doing so to make sure we don’t notice. It’s funny that I’m focusing on him so much since his screentime is only limited to a section in the middle of the movie and I almost wonder if his part was cut down at a certain point to keep him from overshadowing the more serious Peck too much—that’s the sort of impact he has on the film. Jack Weston has some very darkly funny moments as a surprisingly paranoid henchman, George Kennedy in his steel-rimmed glasses (“I owe you some pain, Mr. Stillwell”) is about as physically imposing as he ever was, Kevin McCarthy oozes sliminess as Josephson, the sort of corporate flunkie who calls everyone bubbie or baby or cookie as if all he’s thinking about is cocktail hour while Leif Erickson is the mysterious Major. Robert H. Harris is particularly good sparring with Peck in his two extended scenes as a suspicious psychiatrist, Hari Rhodes of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a skeptical police lieutenant and Franklin Cover of THE JEFFERSONS makes an early appearance lecturing a group of students who in a nice moment offers to Peck that lecturing about Mother Nature “offers no real benefit to their future as competitors in society’s marketplace.”

There’s a lot to read into the film and its overriding theme of the dehumanization that is happening in its world and is, obviously, still happening over forty-five years after it was made. Certain aspects might seem familiar to people-- Sydney Pollack’s 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR certainly bares some similarities including a mysterious character known as “The Major” and I could also believe that some of the thematics laid out in the visual design might have been a minor influence to John Carpenter when he made MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. And it also works as what it’s meant to be, a mid-60s fever dream made up of parts that seem specifically designed for my enjoyment, even if I can tell that it’s not quite as successful as certain other films of the era. Regardless, this is one of those movies where I’m sure I’ll always be sucked into watching the whole thing from the moment that Universal logo flashes onscreen. Sometimes it’s as if those old studio logos are just about the only things in this world we can depend on. Things like that which give us such joy can help to keep us human.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

We just watched this recently, and I got the same resonances with CHARADE and ARABESQUE. I was also reminded of the oddball amnesia movie LOVE LETTERS, scripted by Ayn Rand. Not much in common except for the almost nonsensical application of the amnesia angle.

Since we had just watched THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, it was interesting to see Jack Weston again. I had never noticed him before, a great character actor.

The New York black and white locations were amazing. Strangely, when I remember the California flashback sections, I picture them in color.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

LOVE LETTERS is a new one on me. Hmmm, interesting. Imagining the California bits in color kind of makes sense, actually, but I just love the black and white in this film so much.

P. McKelway said...

Thanks for alerting me to this. I enjoyed it, especially the way Maathau pronounced Dr. Pepper.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Very glad you checked it out, Larry! Yeah, I like that Dr. Pepper bit as well.