"In some cases, filial devotion to a mother goes beyond the level of abnormality."
Edgar G. Ulmer, the poet of Poverty Row, concocted one of the ultimate film-noirs, Detour (1945), by incorporating rich existential themes of Free Will versus Determinism.
Made the same year, Strange Illusion again exemplifies Ulmer overcoming budgetary restraints, but with complex psychological insights into one of societies most cherished institutions; Family.
Ulmer’s compulsive urge for dark revelations find home in every subject he encounters, and along with co-screenwriter Adele Comandini, he loads the first fifteen minutes of Strange Illusion with enough Oedipal allusions to make any Greek scenarist giddy.
The opening quote is a line of dialogue aptly describing puckish protagonist Paul Cartwright (James Lydon).
We find Paul exhibiting unusually strong "feelings" towards his mother, Virginia (Sally Eilers). An early scene shows Paul and his mother acting more like a romantic couple than mother and son.
Paul’s constant references to his youthful mother as "Princess" would seemingly make him the king. But no.
The real kingPaul’s father, Judge Cartwrightwas mysteriously murdered with the killer never found. He remains "alive" via letters written before his death that are sent posthumously to Paul every few months. In his most recent letter, Judge Cartwright charges Paul with being "the man of the family to protect your mother and sister by being vigilant of their associates...and unscrupulous imposters." Paul is tortured by his father’s death and warnings from beyond. Not coincidentally, Brett Curtis (Warren Williams)a suave, handsome, industrialistarrives shortly thereafter, intending to marry Paul’s mother. We soon learn that Brett killed Judge Cartwright and intends to "finish off" the entire Cartwright family.
Sounds like Hamlet, right? The template is there, but Ulmer layers the story with multiple facets of subconscious and family relationships. Shakespeare used Hamlet’s Oedipal proclivities as foundation for drama and tragedy. But Strange Illusion is noir-thriller with an uncharacteristically happy ending. How did Ulmer accomplish this feat? The director dove in thematically where few directors dared to go. It was his only asset against rickety sets and hammy actors. Into the deep end of the family gene pool he goes.
Ulmer believes that love comes in many different colors beyond duotone. Seen in the klieg lights, the Cartwrights are a closeknit, average family. Another type of love exists in the shadowy chiaroscuro of romance; Paul and his mother have an amorous pull toward each other, buried not-too-deep in their subconscious. Ulmer mixes this family’s love of shadow and light simultaneously, which both strain and strengthen each member. The director does not see this as sicknessthough it has been portrayed that way in many plays and filmsthe rocky edges could sink his family, but they stay afloat. Ulmer ferries them safely by separating these two levels of love’s luminosity, never letting them become too blurry.
This is best exemplified by Paul’s subliminal romantic love of his mother. In other films we might be set up for an incestuously disastrously denouement. In Strange Illusion Paul acts on his "urge" to form a protective field around his mother, undermining any conscious (cognizant) urge to replace his father.
Ulmer continues his examination of family by comparing the two paternal relationships that are present throughout the film. The first is the healthy one between Paul and his college professor/family friend Dr. Martin Vincent (Regis Toomey). Since Judge Cartwright’s death, Dr. Vincent has become Paul’s de facto father; cautiously guiding him through the maze that Paul navigates to ultimately unmask Brett Curtis. The relationship defines everything a good father/son has; honestly, loyalty and faith in each other. During a crucial moment Dr. Vincent evokes one of the famous Greek philosophers with the line "Great chap Plato. Modern today as he was in his own time." It’s no coincidence that Ulmer references Plato as many of the philosopher’s beliefs dealt with the paternal connection and how a father’s interest in his son determines how well the boys turn out. In this case the concern that the two men have for each other enables each to greater accomplishments. Paul is victorious over Brett and Dr. Vincent looks to be the man who’ll end up with Virginia Cartwright.
The other paternal relationship has Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt) as father and Brett Curtis as son. Though Curtis is the killer, the Cartwright family’s planned destruction is Muhlbach’s idea. He is the father and Brett is the son. Foreshadowingly, the genesis of this "relationship" was born in an insane asylum as Dr. Muhlbach notes to Curtis, "Maybe I should have kept you as a patient instead of making you an associate." Curtis is a diseased son (thief, killer, with a "weakness" for young ladies) whose only guidance is from a maniacal handler. Muhlbach’s "fatherly" concern for Curtis is his ability to carry out their criminal plan. Their relationship contains all the qualities that destroy father and sons; controlling, lying and distrust. What binds Muhlbach and Curtis together is hatred and greed. But that is what ultimately undermines them, along with the vigilance of Paul and Dr. Vincent’s efforts. Their catastrophic failure as father and son topple their evil plans as each one’s selfishness tears apart this more aptly described partnership.
Ulmer finishes his thesis with a simple yet enduring notion. Throughout the film the Cartwrights consistently switch family roles. At different moments in the story, Paul Cartwright is son to his mother and father(s), father to his mother and sister, and brother to almost everyone. Ulmer believes that, by having all these roles present in Paul, it gives him the wisdom and strength to save the day. Additionally, there are times during which Dr. Vincent transforms to son, as when following Paul on his hunt for Curtis. Conversely, the antagonists never change roles. Muhlbach is forever in charge, always giving the orders. Curtis is his total subservient, never questioning. Ulmer sends out a universal message that healthy families switch roles throughout their lives, while sick ones hold onto their assigned positions like grim death. It is the flexibility of individuals to adapt to these ever-changing roles and responsibilities, which hold families together and survive through the greatest of advisories. By twisting together all these universal truths about family, Edgar G. Ulmer makes a routine thriller into a sublime film experience.