David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) is a man with a past – only he can’t remember any of it.
His life seems to begin in the middle of a New York power blackout, and he’s running into the most interesting people – who seem to know him, but he has no idea who they are or why someone seems eager to have him killed. In the course of a few minutes he’s invited to some kind of office orgy, finds himself chasing a mysterious and gorgeous girl (Diane Baker) down a flight of curiously numbered stairs and emerges from his blacked-out building to find that a man he may or may not know has just jumped from the 18th Floor and landed at his feet.
With that as the set-up we watch Stillwell attempt to figure out if Charles Calvin, the head of Unidyne, a humanitarian organization that works toward world peace, jumped or was pushed from his office window. Things that he thought he saw or thought he knew end up not being the case, such as the multiple sub-basement levels he thought were in that office building which don’t seem to exist in the clear light of day. Working it out, he concludes that he has some form of amnesia, somehow aware that he works as a cost accountant but with no idea what a cost accountant is or does.
After turning the tables on a would-be assassin Stillwell casually disposes of him in an apartment broom closet, realizing people are following him and are after something that he has, though with no idea what it is. The young woman, who he learns was once a love of his, is trying to convince him to cooperate with the people after him if only to save his life. Every person he turns to for assistance denies him, with the exception of a novice private detective he hires named Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau). As the pair partner up we learn that a mysterious figure known as “the major” is the person behind Stillwell’s troubles.
While the leads are captivating to watch and much-loved by an adoring camera, it is the supporting cast – spearheaded by Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, George Kennedy and Matthau being Walter Matthau waaaaay before he was Walter Matthau – that give this neo-noir, black and white thriller much of its pace and style.
Catchy dialogue (also ahead of its 1965 origins), a ripping bongo score, and ahead-of their-time cinematic techniques make Mirage a Hitchcockian thrill ride – the camera drifting away to a televised wrestling match during a critical off-screen fight scene and lingering on any number of recognized New York landmarks as a small army of thugs chase Stillwell through the city.
One of the better thrillers of the ’60s (adapted from a novel by Howard Fast), Mirage is defined by its harsh photography, the varying levels of reality, the use of the urban landscape, all contributing to a tangible feeling of unease.
We say try it on for size if you like moody, plot and character-driven thrillers with class (Peck liked it so much he gave a Rolls Royce to the screenwriter after production).
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