Auteurism, the critical theory that a director is the primary creative force in a film, has produced plenty of follies, but its search for unsung auteurs has occasionally borne fruit. Among the most famous of these “discoveries” is Edgar G. Ulmer, whose thematic and cinematic refinement belied his films’ often poverty-row origins. His thriller Strange Illusion is a good example of why his work fascinates critics.
It is nonetheless deeply flawed in Hollywood terms. The production values are iffy, though inventive. The acting is uneven at best, and the story strains credibility to the breaking point. The film begins with a dream in which college student Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) receives a message from his dead father admonishing him to protect his mother Virginia (Sally Eilers) from an unidentified predator. Disturbing in itself, the dream really begins to haunt Paul when it seems to be coming true.
This unusual setup is made even odder by the fact that all of the characters, including Paul, recognize the absurdity of believing the dream is prophetic. Nonetheless, loyal to the memory of his father, he insists on acting on the warnings. By combining a preposterous premise with an acknowledgment of just how ludicrous it is while still treating it straight, Ulmer inspires a complex, involuted response. We accept that the dream is true in order for there to be a story, but we and the characters can never completely forget how ridiculous the situation is.
Despite parallels to the story of Hamlet, there is no literal ghost and the obvious Freudian overtones in Paul’s relationship with his mother and distrust of her lover, Brett Curtis (Warren William) are not emphasized. In fact, cliché Oedipal explanations are practically part of the film’s devious strategies, since the proposal to treat Paul’s “condition” comes from psychiatrist Dr. Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), the chief villain. It is as if Ulmer and his writers wanted viewers to comfort themselves with pat, knowing explanations only to have them undercut. Even at the level of decor, Illusion is far more sophisticated than many studio features. Trained as an architect, Ulmer knew how to make the Cartwright home a thoroughly convincing image of secure, WASP ruling-class self-satisfaction. (Paul’s father was lieutenant governor.) Dr. Muhlbach’s sanatorium, on the other hand, stylishly combines domesticated modernism and Art Deco details with the otherwise functionalist, quasi-clinical setting.
It’s all too complex to be patronized as low-budget camp and the ambiguities and ambivalence are preserved right up to an ending that fails to satisfy. Paul thwarts his mother and sister’s exploitation, but there is a lingering sense that things have not completely returned to earth. Knocked nearly unconscious in a struggle with Curtis, Paul drifts into a variation on the opening dream, giving the strong impression that everything in between has been a tortured nightmare. The uncertainty that hovers throughout makes Strange Illusion a little tough to like, but even tougher to dismiss.