Underrated Movie #73: Mirage

It’s Un-Super-Spy Week, Day Two (Okay, upon rewatching it, I realized that there aren’t really any spies in this one. Sue me!)
Title: Mirage
Year: 1965
Director: Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper)
Writer: Peter Stone, based on a story by Walter Ericson
Stars: Gregory Peck, Diane Baker, Walter Matthau, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston

The Story: In the middle of a power outage, a Manhattan executive suddenly realizes that he’s not sure where he’s been for the last two years. When he discovers that there are people trying to kill him, he hires a P.I. to help him figure it out. He soon realizes that he is the lynchpin of a vast conspiracy centered on an aerospace giant.

How it Came to be Underrated: I mentioned how The Red House was hurt by entering the public domain, but this is a good example of how the opposite can happen. The movie has a lot of the same appeal as Stone’s previous movie Charade, but that movie was re-discovered in the ‘80s because it was in the public domain and widely available on VHS. This one, on the other hand, was poorly distributed by its rights-holder. It was briefly available on VHS but then it was out of print for years.

Why It’s Fun:

  1. There’s something so post-modern about amnesia movies. The hero doesn’t remember his past life and feels as if he was invented from whole cloth when the movie began, which is, of course, true. As his friends try to convince him otherwise, the hero remains dubious and it’s hard not to be on his side. We know he’s right. These movies, if done cleverly, force us to question our own readiness to accept narrative conventions, then re-build our acceptance as the hero finds a “better” explanation—but the disquiet remains.

  2. The movie turns on a clever insight into human nature: If we can’t do something, like recall a memory, then it doesn’t register in the brain as a disability but rather a dislike. When people ask Peck certain questions, he gets his back up—“What right do you have to ask me that?”—which keeps him from admitting that he doesn’t have the answer. It’s like kids who need glasses but just assume that they don’t like to read. Unfortunately, it’s an instinct that often keeps sick people from realizing they need help.
  3. This was Stone’s most serious movie, but the dialogue is still witty and brisk. As usual, nobody did better with his words than Matthau, though we see way too little of him in this one.
  4. The movie is way ahead of its time in terms of its blandly evil global-corporation villains, who use a utopian-sounding think tank as a front for their ever-expanding profit-seeking. They sound just like BP when their shill calmly explains, “I can’t respect any legality that would impede progress.”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In Stone’s ouvre, this was bookended by two great Stanley Donen spy-comedies, Charade and Arabesque. Stone’s last great screenplay was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, then he moved on to Broadway.

How Available Is It?: It’s on a bare-bones but nice-looking DVD.

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Underrated Movie #29: The Sniper

Film Noir Week aims to please!

Title: The Sniper
Year: 1952
Director: Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire)
Writer: Harry Brown (A Place in the Sun), from a story by Edna and Edward Anhalt (Panic in the Streets)
Stars: Arthur Franz, Adolphe Menjou (Paths of Glory), Marie Windsor (Narrow Margin)

The Story: A sad sack ex-G.I. starts picking off people from rooftops, hoping that the cops will catch him before he strikes again.

How it Came to be Underrated: Like Murder by Contract, this has just been released on dvd for the first time ever. Until now film buffs had to track it down on TCM or a revival theater.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Too many movies exist to tell us what the filmmaker thinks of the characters, instead of trying to understand what the characters think of themselves. Truly terrible movies like A Beautiful Mind attempt to portray the horror of not knowing you have a mental illness, but this movie understands that the true horror comes from knowing you’re ill. Franz is desperately trying to fix himself the entire time. Like any good thriller-hero, he knows that he’s the only one who can stop a killer.
  2. In too many serial killer movies, the brilliant killer knows everything that his victims are thinking, then the hero wins by knowing everything that the killer is thinking. But that’s not realistic and it’s not scary. In fact, it’s downright re-assuring to think that there’s some crazed killer out there who’s just as obsessed with us as we are with ourselves. What’s truly scary is the possibility of a world where nobody cares what anyone else is thinking.
  3. Edward Dmytryk’s career shows the poisonous effect of the “prestige” picture. Dmytryk never stopped making great little thrillers, from Murder My Sweet in 1944, to this movie in 1952, to Mirage in 1965, but he also had a parallel career directing widescreen technicolor stinkers like Where Love Has Gone. Like the killer, there were two men struggling inside of Dmytryk, one who was good at being mean, and one who was bad at being good.
  4. There are definitely no “femme fatales” to be found here. It’s easy to assume that all noirs grow from a seed of misogyny, but this movie does the opposite: it makes a real attempt to understand and condemn misogyny, which lurks not just in the mind of the killer, but also in the idle chatter that surrounds these crimes.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The first great “mind of a killer” thriller was Fritz Lang’s M. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam was also underrated.

How Available Is It?: Like Murder by Contract, the new dvd has a nice intro by Martin Scorsese. Even better, this one has a great commentary by the always-likable noir scholar Eddie Mueller.

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