At one point, protagonist David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) – searching for answers about all the things in his life that don’t add up – consults a psychiatrist (Robert H. Harris, the maniac make-up man from How to Make a Monster) about his problems – amusingly, he’s picked the man’s name because his book has just been remaindered – and is kicked out of the shrink’s office because amnesia doesn’t work in the way he describes so he must be lying. It’s possible that novelist Howard Fast (writing as Walter Ericson) and screenwriter Peter Stone were poking fun at the many, many film noir type thrillers which use amnesia as a plot point – but, to be fair, the connections are never quite made that sort out all the clues dropped. Does Stillwell, who remembers his name but not his date of birth and that he’s been a ‘cost accountant’ for two years but not what that actually is, have a huge gap in his memory from trauma? Has he been brainwashed? Does he have significant ‘missing time’ – other people who keep saying ‘long time no see’ seem to confirm this, but the big event (the supposed suicide of a public figure) that kicks off the plot has happened in the last day or so. Nevertheless, this does manage a sustained air of unease and fractiousness.
It opens with a sudden blackout in a New York office building and Stillwell turning down an invitation to an orgy (‘a Braille party’) … then has him make his way downstairs in the dark, chatting with a woman (Diane Baker) who seems to know him then seems to accept she’s thinking of someone else then runs away annoyed when she sees him in the light. This is one of those buildings without a thirteenth floor, but when Stillwell returns it’s also lacking in the sub-basement levels he followed the woman to … also, his office no longer exists in So Long at the Fair fashion. Making his way to his bland apartment, he’s held up at gunpoint by a jolly goon (Jack Weston) who wants to watch the wrestling on television and insists Stillwell should depart for Barbados to report to ‘the Major’ (also mentioned by the mystery woman). Stillwell shows sudden action man skills and overcomes his assailant – is he a Bourne-type who’s forgotten that he’s been trained to survive? No, actually in real life it turns out that he’s a ‘physio-chemist’ who’s hit on a radiation-neutralising formula (gobbledegook) that would make atom bombs less deadly but also easier to use. So how come he can put up a fight against trained assassins? That just slides, along with so much else.
An oddly disturbing moment has Stillwell open his fridge to find nothing there, as if his apartment were a stage set – but when he comes back with just-hired PI Caselle (Walter Matthau) to get started on figuring it out, the fridge is fully stocked. Also in the mix is a sadistic hit-man (George Kennedy), a by-the-book cop (Hari Rhodes), that sinister Major (Lief Erickson) and a smoothly untrustworthy work colleague (Kevin McCarthy). It was greenlit in the wake of North By Northwest, Caprice and other atom age noir romps, but is black and white and dour rather than flip and cynical. Obviously casting Gregory Peck as an amnesiac harks back to Hitchcock, as do a lot of other elements – including hiring Diane Baker, the PI who perks up the plot then gets killed from Psycho, a chase through a public place (Central Park here) – but Dmytryk had his own noir personality, and plays with that too.
Leftists Fast, famously blacklisted, and Dmytryk, famously blacklisted and equally famously an informer, may have been struggling towards political significance but the film works best on a level of psychological wrongness. A telling little scene has a left-home-alone little girl (Eileen Baral) offer shelter to the hero and heroine to get them out of a tight spot, and Shela (Baker) playing house with the kid, noticing how David has no idea how to talk to the little girl (he offers to tip her). An odd film echo is that a key scene finds Stillwell by the leopard cage in Central Park zoo, where the meet cute and tragic end of Cat People took place – that was shot in Hollywood, but a look at the real place reveals that Val Lewton had it recreated perfectly … it may be a callback to the earlier film that the black leopard in the cage is now female, as if Irena suffered the ending Paul Schrader used in 1982. A year later, James Garner also went the grey flannel loss of memory route in the similar-looking Mister Buddwing … and three years later, with LSD added, the novel was reworked as Jigsaw. Fast’s book is called Falling Angel, the title William Hjortsberg used for his amnesia noir novel – later filmed as Angel Heart. That’s as intricate a tangle of film-literature connections as this script, which it has to be said falls apart when the survivors get together in a penthouse to talk through what’s actually happened and where they go from here.