A Poverty Row psychological thriller, with Warren William making a sleazy, creepy villain
Jun 10, 2011
Hamlet, Freud and Edgar Ulmer may seem like an unnatural group of pals, but among them they have come up with a tidy little psychological thriller. In fact, with a bigger budget and stronger actors, Ulmer might have had a classic on his hands. As it is, Strange Illusion can't escape its Poverty Row heritage. Even so, it's a well-paced movie that keeps a person's interest. Even if the best-acted roles are the bad guys, that's not necessarily a drawback in a B movie.
Paul Cartwright's father, an older man and a respected judge, died two year ago in a train accident...at least it appeared to be an accident. Paul's not so sure. Paul (James Lydon) is a young man from a good family. He has a younger sister and an attractive mother, Virginia Cartwright (Sally Eilers). The family is well off. Paul lately has been having dreams, disturbing dreams, of his father telling him to take care of his mother, to be wary of a shadowy someone who is coming into her life. Paul confides in an old friend of the family, Dr. Martin Vincent (Regis Toomey), who tries to calm Paul but who also respects Paul's intelligence. Paul is, in fact, smart and resourceful. Then one day Paul's mother introduces him to Brett Curtis (Warren William), a smooth, gracious man Paul feels he's met before. Curtis and his mother announce that they plan to wed.
Paul becomes suspicious of Curtis and Curtis' association with Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), a psychologist who runs an exclusive and very private sanitarium. Before long, Paul becomes a "guest" in the place so that he can investigate Muhlbach and Curtis. But things begin to go wrong. It becomes a race to see if Paul can break away, if Dr. Vincent can convince the police that there may be a link between the death of Paul's father and the team of Curtis and Muhlbach, and if Paul and some of his friends can get to the lake cottage where Curtis has gone with Paul's sister.
James Lydon had a great success as a child actor, especially playing in the Henry Aldrich films. He was typecast as a gawky, friendly, well-intentioned kid. Strange Illusion was an attempt by him to break out of those roles as he grew older. He's not a gifted enough actor to carry the weight of the movie, but he certainly gives the role all he's got. He's no embarrassment. The acting interest, however, comes from Charles Arnt and, especially, Warren William. Arnt gives the professor a great gloss of smiling insincerity. He's unethical down to his polished fingernails.
Warren William really shines. William was a tall, broad-shoulder man with a profile that out-Barrymored Barrymore's. He had a creamy baritone voice and a smooth manner. Although he was in private life a shy man long-married to one woman, in movies he became typed as a charming rotter. He was big stuff in the early Thirties, but by the late Thirties had slowly moved down to B movies. In Strange Illusion, at 51, his profile was still as sharp as a crease, but his face was beginning to look its age. His eyes were a little puffy and pouched, the jaw line not quite so firm. With the Curtis character, William's face looks like smiling dissipation. As soon as we see Brett Curtis walk into Virginia Cartwright's parlor to be introduced to Paul, we know this man is as insincere as a head waiter. Later, while we watch him try to sweet-talk Virginia into to an early marriage, all the while subtly looking over the daughter, we know the ghost in Paul's dream was right on. William does a fine job showing us a creepy, dangerous charmer.
Ulmer starts the movie with the dream sequence. It's B movie special effects but it serves the purpose of getting us into Paul's mind and preparing us to believe in Paul. Be forewarned. There's a brief dream sequence at the end which verges on the icky. I've seen this movie on DVD and on VHS tape. The transfers are watchable but nothing special for either one. Both bear all the poor quality hallmarks of a public domain movie: Soft images, dirt, too contrasty in places and impenetrable night scenes.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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Film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a mixed review, yet liked the atmospherics of the film, and wrote, "The dark psychological thriller had an engrossing premise courtesy of Mr. Shakespeare and was influenced further by Freudian dream analysis, but it was unconvincing as a melodrama, the script was weak, the plot was full of holes and the acting was as lame as it gets...
What's interesting is that the film is shot as an intense dream sequence in shadowy black-and-white hues and its sense of delirium powerfully filters through the story almost wiping away the unconvincing heavy-handed performances of the villains and the mummified acting by the leads. It's a film where Ulmer's unique style and his film noir moody interjections work better than the deviative mystery story." Critic Matthew Sorrento of Film Threat also lauded the film: "Though saddled with the script’s fetish for Freud, Ulmer stylizes his thriller without sending it adrift. Like his other great films, Strange Illusion is a shaggy quickie that takes fine shape throughout."