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Mirage : an entertaining, regulation black-and-white mistaken-identity paranoid thriller

How does one describe Gregory Peck?

Mirage: And the melon’s red glare/ Hit the road with such flair...
Mirage: And the melon’s red glare/ Hit the road with such flair...

Inspiration prevails in the strangest places, places like the 805 off-ramp while tooling towards Chula Vista.

Mirage (1965)

The trash-hauling buggy before me was piled so high with furniture, appliances, and the like that I half-expected to find Granny Clampett ballasted atop the roving mountain. The entire collection appeared to be securely bungeed and roped, but one chuckhole later, the tailgate of the junkman’s dumpster dropped open and out bounced — of all things — a watermelon. (Judging by the lack of seed damage done to my tires, I’m guessing it was a triploid hybrid.) Rather than having my life flash before my eyes, I called back a four-second snippet from the TV spot for Edward Dmytryk’s mid-’60s paranoid political thriller Mirage. Madison Avenue accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) overhears a bar patron’s testimony that the sound of a watermelon hitting the pavement from 14 floors up bears an uncanny similarity to that of a suicide victim he encountered on the way in. Unbeknownst to Stillwell, the jumper was his boss. The splattering fruit juxtaposed with the Vertigo-inspired rear projection plummet left a mark. Decades before David Letterman pitched watermelons off a 20-story tower — not to mention the global movement to end hunger​​ — this melonhead was transfixed by the bursting-fruit equivalent of a fireworks display.

Gregory Peck and Jack Weston co-star in Lobby Card #3.

I’m not sure how or why the obsession began, but every day after lunch, a rotted apple or tomato would accompany me on my patrol boy route. What kid didn’t yearn to have a dayglo orange strap flung around shoulder and waist, granting the power to stop traffic at will? My opposite-corner crony would also bring an inedible offering, and each day at approximately 12:42 pm, we would align the targets in the middle of the street. Moments later, and right on schedule, our friendly neighborhood bus driver, Ted, would bring the #96 barreling down Lunt Avenue and flatten the fruit. A ten-ton public transport, piloted by a driver endowed with a sense of humor, became our personal juice press. It was the funniest damn thing this 12-year-old ever saw. Later that year, after spending hours of quality time staring at the dangling gourds in the Ezras Israel sukkah, we spied a couple of crates of spoiled apples parked next to the synagogue dumpster. Pulling up a curb, a buddy and I spent a good portion of the afternoon leisurely lobbing rotten apples into the street. By the time we were through, the intersection of Lunt and California resembled a pulpy Jackson Pollack creation.

See the book, read the movie!

Why all this the talk of flattened fruit? It all came back to me last night while watching Mirage. Dad took me to see it opening week at the second-run Adelphi Theatre, and the following Saturday I cajoled a couple of neighbor kids into tagging along for my second screening. The story didn’t make much sense to me back then. Hell, even today I found myself scanning backwards to catch red herrings. What mattered back then was the slow motion shot of the watermelon hitting the deck that appeared in TV spots as well as subsequent commercials for network airings. This four-second fragment acted as a selling tool, fascinating me to the point I couldn’t wait to see it again. It didn’t disappoint.

In context, the squashed casaba is just another unexplained fragment cast adrift inside the mind of David Stillwell. Here is one cost accountant/physio-chemist that isn’t about to let a bout of amnesia get in the way of his manhunt to find himself. (Amnesia as a plot motivator is the stuff networks dramas and sitcoms relied on when the weekly grind got to be too much and inspiration failed.) Stillwell’s blackout neatly coincides with a power outage in his office building, and it isn’t long before semi-familiar faces begin appearing in the dark. Stillwell recalls Sylvester Josephson (Kevin McCarthy) — his glad-handing colleague’s non-stop use of “bubby” and “baby” make him impossible to forget, try as one might. But our hero’s ex-girlfriend Sheila (Diane Baker) must not have made that strong an impression, as a stairwell confrontation only adds to the frustration. To make matters worse, Stillwell trails her down four flights that he later can’t account for — it’s a key moment for our baffled hero, who believes the basement stairs of The Unidyne Corporation’s L.A. plant are somehow connected to the ones at the New York office. Dmytryk follows his characters down several flights of stairs stopping short of visiting the sub-basement. Instead of showing the actors descending the steps, Dmytryk stylistically chooses to let the signage lead the way.

Diane Baker and Gregory Peck take direction from Edward Dmytryk.

Light eventually returns to the Unidyne Building, but it takes reels for a bulb to go off over Stillwell’s head. He consults Dr. Broden (Robert H. Harris), the meanest shrink in all the land, and even goes so far as hiring neophyte private eye Ted Casselle (Walter Matthau) to help on his self-serving search. Next to Peyton Place, this is the closest Mr. Harris came to making the “A” list, and the actor who starred in How to Make a Monster never stops trying to impress the Universal brass with his overpowering performance. Mirage was Matthau’s last stab at memorable character bits. Next year’s best supporting actor Oscar for Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie would help to make the man with the shar-pei grin a household name.

Along with Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, and to a lesser degree Mr. Budwing, Mirage endures as an entertaining, regulation black-and-white mistaken-identity paranoid thriller from the ‘60’s. Peter Stone, whose screenplay is based on his old Hollywood Ten prison mate Howard Fast’s novel, also penned a pair of Technicolor thrillers for Stanley Donen, Charade and Arabesque. (Stone relied so heavily on The Master of Suspense’s “innocent man falsely accused” formula that many are quick to mention Charade as a favorite Hitchcock film.)

Stillwell, a man who preaches that there is “no money in peace,” is perfecting a device similar to what terrorists now use in suitcase bombs. Countless plots from ‘50’s sci-fi films were atomic-powered, but this is one of the earliest to link nuclear fission with the corporate bottom line.

How does one describe Gregory Peck? Wooden? Stiff? Dull? Give Peck a variety of characters — Horatio Hornblower, Atticus Finch, Capt. Newman, MD, Ahab, Dr. Josef Mengele, Scott Fitzgerald — and he’ll play them all the same. When Peck finally does let loose, the end result is usually unintentional laughs. Try and keep your drink down when Stillwell shouts, “To hell with you, doctor!” Even when the dialogue picks up, Peck and fellow former Hitchcock player Diane Baker spark little chemistry together. His sloe-voiced, slow-witted delivery should have been perfectly suited to an amnesia victim, and still the melon out-acts him.

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Mirage: And the melon’s red glare/ Hit the road with such flair...
Mirage: And the melon’s red glare/ Hit the road with such flair...

Inspiration prevails in the strangest places, places like the 805 off-ramp while tooling towards Chula Vista.

Mirage (1965)

The trash-hauling buggy before me was piled so high with furniture, appliances, and the like that I half-expected to find Granny Clampett ballasted atop the roving mountain. The entire collection appeared to be securely bungeed and roped, but one chuckhole later, the tailgate of the junkman’s dumpster dropped open and out bounced — of all things — a watermelon. (Judging by the lack of seed damage done to my tires, I’m guessing it was a triploid hybrid.) Rather than having my life flash before my eyes, I called back a four-second snippet from the TV spot for Edward Dmytryk’s mid-’60s paranoid political thriller Mirage. Madison Avenue accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) overhears a bar patron’s testimony that the sound of a watermelon hitting the pavement from 14 floors up bears an uncanny similarity to that of a suicide victim he encountered on the way in. Unbeknownst to Stillwell, the jumper was his boss. The splattering fruit juxtaposed with the Vertigo-inspired rear projection plummet left a mark. Decades before David Letterman pitched watermelons off a 20-story tower — not to mention the global movement to end hunger​​ — this melonhead was transfixed by the bursting-fruit equivalent of a fireworks display.

Gregory Peck and Jack Weston co-star in Lobby Card #3.

I’m not sure how or why the obsession began, but every day after lunch, a rotted apple or tomato would accompany me on my patrol boy route. What kid didn’t yearn to have a dayglo orange strap flung around shoulder and waist, granting the power to stop traffic at will? My opposite-corner crony would also bring an inedible offering, and each day at approximately 12:42 pm, we would align the targets in the middle of the street. Moments later, and right on schedule, our friendly neighborhood bus driver, Ted, would bring the #96 barreling down Lunt Avenue and flatten the fruit. A ten-ton public transport, piloted by a driver endowed with a sense of humor, became our personal juice press. It was the funniest damn thing this 12-year-old ever saw. Later that year, after spending hours of quality time staring at the dangling gourds in the Ezras Israel sukkah, we spied a couple of crates of spoiled apples parked next to the synagogue dumpster. Pulling up a curb, a buddy and I spent a good portion of the afternoon leisurely lobbing rotten apples into the street. By the time we were through, the intersection of Lunt and California resembled a pulpy Jackson Pollack creation.

See the book, read the movie!

Why all this the talk of flattened fruit? It all came back to me last night while watching Mirage. Dad took me to see it opening week at the second-run Adelphi Theatre, and the following Saturday I cajoled a couple of neighbor kids into tagging along for my second screening. The story didn’t make much sense to me back then. Hell, even today I found myself scanning backwards to catch red herrings. What mattered back then was the slow motion shot of the watermelon hitting the deck that appeared in TV spots as well as subsequent commercials for network airings. This four-second fragment acted as a selling tool, fascinating me to the point I couldn’t wait to see it again. It didn’t disappoint.

In context, the squashed casaba is just another unexplained fragment cast adrift inside the mind of David Stillwell. Here is one cost accountant/physio-chemist that isn’t about to let a bout of amnesia get in the way of his manhunt to find himself. (Amnesia as a plot motivator is the stuff networks dramas and sitcoms relied on when the weekly grind got to be too much and inspiration failed.) Stillwell’s blackout neatly coincides with a power outage in his office building, and it isn’t long before semi-familiar faces begin appearing in the dark. Stillwell recalls Sylvester Josephson (Kevin McCarthy) — his glad-handing colleague’s non-stop use of “bubby” and “baby” make him impossible to forget, try as one might. But our hero’s ex-girlfriend Sheila (Diane Baker) must not have made that strong an impression, as a stairwell confrontation only adds to the frustration. To make matters worse, Stillwell trails her down four flights that he later can’t account for — it’s a key moment for our baffled hero, who believes the basement stairs of The Unidyne Corporation’s L.A. plant are somehow connected to the ones at the New York office. Dmytryk follows his characters down several flights of stairs stopping short of visiting the sub-basement. Instead of showing the actors descending the steps, Dmytryk stylistically chooses to let the signage lead the way.

Diane Baker and Gregory Peck take direction from Edward Dmytryk.

Light eventually returns to the Unidyne Building, but it takes reels for a bulb to go off over Stillwell’s head. He consults Dr. Broden (Robert H. Harris), the meanest shrink in all the land, and even goes so far as hiring neophyte private eye Ted Casselle (Walter Matthau) to help on his self-serving search. Next to Peyton Place, this is the closest Mr. Harris came to making the “A” list, and the actor who starred in How to Make a Monster never stops trying to impress the Universal brass with his overpowering performance. Mirage was Matthau’s last stab at memorable character bits. Next year’s best supporting actor Oscar for Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie would help to make the man with the shar-pei grin a household name.

Along with Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, and to a lesser degree Mr. Budwing, Mirage endures as an entertaining, regulation black-and-white mistaken-identity paranoid thriller from the ‘60’s. Peter Stone, whose screenplay is based on his old Hollywood Ten prison mate Howard Fast’s novel, also penned a pair of Technicolor thrillers for Stanley Donen, Charade and Arabesque. (Stone relied so heavily on The Master of Suspense’s “innocent man falsely accused” formula that many are quick to mention Charade as a favorite Hitchcock film.)

Stillwell, a man who preaches that there is “no money in peace,” is perfecting a device similar to what terrorists now use in suitcase bombs. Countless plots from ‘50’s sci-fi films were atomic-powered, but this is one of the earliest to link nuclear fission with the corporate bottom line.

How does one describe Gregory Peck? Wooden? Stiff? Dull? Give Peck a variety of characters — Horatio Hornblower, Atticus Finch, Capt. Newman, MD, Ahab, Dr. Josef Mengele, Scott Fitzgerald — and he’ll play them all the same. When Peck finally does let loose, the end result is usually unintentional laughs. Try and keep your drink down when Stillwell shouts, “To hell with you, doctor!” Even when the dialogue picks up, Peck and fellow former Hitchcock player Diane Baker spark little chemistry together. His sloe-voiced, slow-witted delivery should have been perfectly suited to an amnesia victim, and still the melon out-acts him.

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