Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

What Does “Mirage” Want to Forget?

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Luis Buñuel’s perverse adaptation of “Robinson Crusoe,” made in Mexico in 1953 (and something I plan to TiVo when TCM telecasts it tonight, Wednesday, at 1:45 AM), was a notable movie made by two self exiled Communists—the Spanish director and the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Hugo Butler. The seldom screened “Mad Men”-era thriller  “Mirage” (showing at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday, November 9, and Sunday, November 11, as part of the series “To Save and Project”) is an even stranger example of red collaboration.

A tale steeped in nuclear paranoia and fear of the corporate state, if I might be permitted to paraphrase the capsule description I wrote for MoMA, “Mirage” is the movie in which Edward Dmytryk, one of the original Hollywood Ten, returned (as it were) to his political roots, adapting an “anti-fascist mystery,” “The Fallen Angel,” published in 1951, under a pseudonym, by erstwhile fellow Communist, Howard Fast. Buñuel and Butler were comrades; at the time of their “collaboration,” Dmytryk and Fast were more like arch enemies. Dmytryk, who joined the Communist Party in 1944, made his early reputation directing patriotic war films and anti-fascist noirs like “Crossfire” (1947), a movie that received more ink in the Daily Worker than any Hollywood production since “Mission to Moscow.” Fast, who also joined the CP during World War II, was, for a time, lionized behind the Iron Curtain as America’s most distinguished contemporary writer.

But those days were long gone when Universal released “Mirage” in the go-go spring of 1965 (“a fast, slick, sophisticated movie” per Judith Crist). Shot, like an art film, in black and white, “Mirage” was recognized as a descendent of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,”–people are trying to kill the hero David Stillwell [sic], played by Gregory Peck in a gray flannel suit, and he doesn’t know why!–even as Dmytryk’s fluid flashbacks suggested the influence of Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” It’s a mod, mod world that happens feature some of Dmytryk’s best filmmaking–presaging the Big Blackout of ‘65, the opening scene has the workers of a modern office tower groping their way downstairs after the power fails–and is rich with subtext. Kevin McCarthy, the courageous pod-fighter of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” here plays a craven Madison Avenue conformist who learns to rebel against pod-dum and the amnesia that the movie takes as its subject seems as much historical as personal.

In the investigations of the late ’40s, both Dmytryk and Fast ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and were jailed for their political beliefs, doing overlapping time at the Mill Point Federal Prison, a minimum-security work-camp in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, populated mainly by conscientious objectors and moonshiners. Dmytryk would turn “friendly” and subsequently name names; Fast stuck with the Party for another half dozen years. Both wrote about each other in their memoirs and both appeared totally in character—the selfish rat and the arrogant true-believer. “The first thing Dmytryk said to me after we met [at Mill Point] was ‘How do you turn someone in?’” Fast recalled in “Being Red”, while Dmytryk derisively recounted Fast’s attempt to recruit a black inmate to the CP: “He assured him that blacks were better than whites. The backfire lost Fast a convert,” Dmytryk wrote in “Odd Man Out”, adding that “the naïveté of  ploys such as Fast’s no longer surprised me.”

Neither man mentions “Mirage” and so the story by which Dmytryk came film Fast’s novel, written before he began serving his sentence, remains a mystery appropriate to a movie concerned with a hero who loses his memory and sagely concludes, “We’re afraid to remember something and so we don’t.”

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