Director Edgar G. Ulmer can do a lot with a little, as films like Detour and Black Cat reveal. Every so often, though, even the most inventive of auteurs can run into trouble. Such is the case with Strange Illusion, a 1945 film noir that struggles under the weight of lukewarm performances, a clumsy script and dull interiors.
The script by Adele Comandini is essentially an adaptation of Hamlet, only with a contemporary punch that turns it into a sort of adolescent noir. Jimmy Lydon takes the lead and he’s an affable enough kid, but it’s hard to shake the idea that he is indeed a kid and that he is indeed so damn affable.
Lydon is Paul, an adolescent who is on a fishing vacation with a family friend (Regis Toomey) when he has an intense dream about his deceased father. His dead dad gives him a warning, noting that all is not as it seems and cautioning Paul that his family is in great danger from an outside stranger.
Paul hurries home to learn that his mother (Sally Eilers) is in love with the jaunty Brett Curtis (Warren William). Paul doesn’t trust him, even as his younger sister Dorothy (Jayne Hazard) is enamoured and dear old mom doesn’t have any reservations either. Soon, things from Paul’s dream come to fruition.
Strange Illusion flirts with interesting concepts, starting with dreams. It delves into Paul’s reverie at the outset and explores how it holds weight over the conscious mind. It also explores how the world around the protagonist reacts, with turns of doubt and concern plaited into their less-than-decent motives.
Ulmer also swings against the 1940s trend of touting psychiatry by taking a categorically adverse view. While there is some Freudian analysis on a surface level, most of the picture is bent toward casting psychiatry as an atonal prison of anti-thought. The adults of Paul’s world, except for Toomey’s character, discourage intellectual pursuits.
Unfortunately, Strange Illusion doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination and it isn’t long before Brett’s true nature is revealed. He is up to something and uses the services of Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), who operates a sanitarium and wants to admit Paul for some timely examination.
Paul heads to Muhlbach’s facility without much fuss, but there’s no mystery because the cards are already on the table. All that remains is for Paul to discover what he already knows. Luckily, Ulmer builds some tension as Professor Muhlbach lurks around every corner and his nurse keeps a sharp eye out.
Brett’s character is difficult to discuss without giving things away, but William fares well as a greasy cad. He pushes Paul’s mother to marry him and has an eye for rather young women. One creepy scene finds him leering at one of Dorothy’s friends just before her mother finally accepts his marriage proposal.
But despite these interesting bits and pieces, Ulmer has trouble pulling together an entertaining narrative and Strange Illusion fades without making much of an impression. While some noble concepts are in the wind, the movie’s insistence on sticking to its teen-noir distinction makes for a dithering, insipid experience.