“The shock of his violent death still haunts my mind.”
Appearing in 1945, Strange Illusion came out at about the mid-point of the 1940-1948 existence of independent production company Producers Releasing Company, or PRC. At the time, PRC was considered to be pretty well at the bottom of the Hollywood studio pecking order. It specialized in B features designed to fill the lower half of theatre double bills — mainly westerns, mysteries, and juvenile comedies. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was in all practicality, though not in name, head of production for the studio and worked closely with studio boss Leon Fromkess. Ulmer, of course, undertook the directing duties himself on a number of PRC’s films and managed to turn out quite a few interesting titles despite the studio’s strict budgetary and time limitations. Strange Illusion (generally released under that title, though originally copyrighted under the title Out of the Night) was one of his better film noir efforts though not in the same class as 1946’s superior Detour.
All Day Entertainment (through its distribution arrangement with Image) has released Strange Illusion as Volume 5 of its Edgar G. Ulmer Collection.
After Judge Albert Cartwright dies when his car collides with a train, his son, college student Paul Cartwright, is haunted by nightmares in which a shadowy stranger claims to be his new father. Dr. Vincent, an old family friend, takes Paul fishing in order to help ease his mind, but Paul remains unsettled and decides to return home. There he finds that his mother Virginia is seeing Brett Curtis, a businessman new to the area. Paul is immediately suspicious of Curtis and as various events occur that mirror what he experienced in his nightmares, he begins to investigate Curtis’s background. Despite Paul’s misgivings, Virginia agrees to marry Curtis. Meanwhile Paul’s investigations have convinced him that Curtis is actually Claude Barrington, a murderer and child molester previously believed to have been killed. Curtis begins to fear that Paul will interfere with his marriage to Virginia and he conspires with Professor Muhlbach, an accomplice and the head of a nearby sanatorium, to have Paul committed there. Paul pretends to play along, hopeful that he can uncover some proof that Curtis’s intentions towards his mother are less than honourable. What he stumbles upon is much more sinister.
Strange Illusion is thematically very identifiable as an Edgar Ulmer picture. As with many of Ulmer’s best films, it focuses on a person whose life is somehow beyond his control — in this case, Paul Cartwright, the events in whose life seem guided by nightmares and who even gets letters from his deceased father as though being directed from the grave. Paul’s obsession with the nightmares manifest in his distrust of his mother’s new suitor, Brett Curtis, at first seems to mark him as little more than a very neurotic young man who needs to be humoured more than anything else. But as the nightmares become reality, his friends and associates are gradually forced to believe in him and they come to recognize the same suspicions that Paul has. Ulmer builds the case adroitly for Paul’s increasingly dark view of Curtis and Curtis’s associate Professor Muhlbach, through his usual distinctive camera positioning and use of shadow and oblique lighting. The opening nightmare sequence, for example, is typical Ulmer with the use of swirling mist to convey mystery and unease.
Somewhat obscured by the nightmare aspects of the story and Ulmer’s characteristic touches is the fact that the film is really an updated version of “Hamlet.” Once one recognizes this, the story does become somewhat predictable, but the overall result is an interesting and entertaining film that delivers its message briskly and with a style that belies its limited budget.
The cast is a mixed blessing. Old pro Warren William delivers a smooth performance as the villainous Curtis and Sally Eilers is quite good as Paul Cartwright’s mother. Problematic, however, is Jimmy Lydon as Paul. Lydon doesn’t possess the gravity to make his portrayal really come to life. There’s too much of a gee-whiz Hardy Boy nature to his actions and reactions. Lydon was well known for playing the juvenile lead in the Henry Aldrich series for Paramount in the early 1940s, and his work here tends to retain the flavour of that character. Well-known character actor Regis Toomey provides a familiar turn as a doctor sympathetic to Paul’s suspicions. Charles Arnt (looking a little like character actor Porter Hall) is effectively sinister as Professor Muhlbach.
All Day’s DVD is not among the best image transfers for black and white films of the same vintage. In fact, it’s quite rough looking, but given the film’s history, certainly workable. The film is presented full frame at 1.37:1 in accord with the original aspect ratio and has been transferred from a 35mm print apparently originating from the French National Film Archive. There are numerous speckles and scratches and the image looks rather dark at times, revealing substantial grain and resulting in almost complete loss of shadow detail on those occasions. Otherwise, the transfer is sufficiently sharp and clear to convey the story satisfactorily. Despite the imperfections, the film looks better than I’ve ever seen it in previous video incarnations (including another DVD version by Roan Group).
The audio is a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track that delivers the dialogue-driven film with its fairly eerie music score by Erdody adequately. It is characterized by age-related hiss throughout (not really a problem) and a background hum that is noticeable during the first quarter of the film (may be annoying to some).
For a minor film, All Day provides a nice set of supplements. The principal one is a new 16-minute featurette about Edgar Ulmer’s days at PRC, called “The King of PRC.” Utilizing interviews with Ulmer’s daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes and film historian David Kalat, it sheds some light on a topic that will not be familiar to many. Accompanying the featurette are an archive of 34 stills, posters and lobby cards, and theatrical trailers for five of Ulmer’s films (The Man from Planet X, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Amazing Transparent Man, Beyond the Time Barrier, and The Cavern). Finally, All Day has reproduced much of the content in the film’s original media guide in an eight-page booklet found inside the DVD case. The only problem with the booklet is the very small print that provides a challenge for even those with excellent eyesight.
Strange Illusion is one of Edgar Ulmer’s better films by virtue of an interesting updating of “Hamlet” and Ulmer’s usual ability to make something out of nothing. (Commonly, Ulmer had about $25,000 and six days at his disposal for each of his PRC films.) The typical B level cast is buttressed by a nice performance from former A-list star Warren William. All Day’s DVD package is a worthy addition to the previous four volumes in the Ulmer series, although the image transfer is only adequate. Recommended.