Peter Stone, the scenarist for Mirage, specializes in achingly “smart” dialogue. The characters in a Stone script never face a plot development or emotional situation for which they do not have a pithy response. His frothy, glib badinage can be entertaining, but the compulsive facetiousness is just as often all too obviously an end in itself, like a sitcom that’s been processed too many times either to be funny or believable.
The story and dialog in Mirage are the most distinctive things about it, but they shouldn’t be. Working from a novel by Howard Fast, Stone combines a neat hook, the efforts of amnesiac David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) to recover his memory, with flashy, New Wavish dislocation and temporarily incomprehensible situations. Directed by Hollywood veteran Edward Dmytryk, Mirage is a slick bit of studio packaging, fully up to the then date (1965) with Modernist flourishes in the service of what is ultimately little more than a traditional mystery wrapped in psychological fashions.
The results are clever and glossy, but they could be much more. For every life-threatening incident that Stillwell undergoes becomes more an excuse for verbal gymnastics than an exploration of fear. They certainly are not used to examine a fractured psyche. Sylvester Josephson (Kevin McCarthy) for example, one of Stillwell’s antagonists, sounds more like an ad man selling toothpaste than the head of a corporate division he’s supposed to be. Stillwell’s big moment with ex-girlfriend Shela (Diane Baker) consists of one quip after another, tossed back and forth like a tennis ball, preceding the inevitable kiss-before-fade-out with Shela saying “You don’t have to sign anything. Let’s just say we’re in escrow.” Real estate agents no doubt find it romantic.
The actors are not alone in struggling to overcome Stone’s conceits. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald creates a sleekly creepy atmosphere in the modern office building where much of the action occurs, for example, although in its way, the cinematography is almost as showy as Stone’s banter. Dmytryk, more a master of violent action than paranoid menace, gives the film a lean, crisp movement. Helped by his editors, he melds the conflicting expectations of straight forward Hollywood narrative and experimental technique with some panache. And to be sure, Stone shows considerable invention in the outlandish action he inflicts on Stillwell. It’s just that his preference for wisecracks over anything more moving assures only the most superficial involvement.
What is more fearful than to lose your identity, cast adrift in a violent, hostile world, when you’re not even sure of the truth of the things attributed to you? Kafka played this kind of thing straight to make it grimly amusing. When frosted with contrived, rather smug cleverness, the story loses its richer resonances and possibilities. No matter how harried David Stillwell may get, he’s always got his wits. That is what makes Mirage go down smooth, but it is also what keeps it from being as compelling—or funny—as it could be.