The Cohen Case Files: Deadly Illusion (1987)

Written and Co-Directed by Larry Cohen

It’s hard not to think of I, the Jury when watching Deadly Illusion. Both films feature a down on his luck New York City private eye. Both films feature a police detective ally/antagonist with whom the private eye has a complicated history that borders on homoerotic. Both films feature loyal “girl Fridays” who do everything for their respective private detectives, yet are not fully valued. And both films started out being directed by Larry Cohen before he was fired and replaced with another director.

Not surprisingly, both films are failures. But where I, the Jury had a fairly professional cast and an established literary character in Mike Hammer, Deadly Illusion has Billy Dee Williams, Morgan Fairchild, Vanity, and a string of barely coherent scenes stitched together with some hastily written voiceover narration used to try and cover up the massive plot holes and missing coverage. I, the Jury is a bad movie, but it’s coherent and has some watchable scenes. Deadly Illusion is an atrociously bad movie that approaches Wicked Stepmother levels of ineptitude and embarrassment for all involved.

The private eye in Deadly Illusion is Hamberger (Williams). In one of many repeated “jokes” in the film, he asks, via voiceover narration, that you not make fun of his name. Introduced in the bureaucratic hell that is a New York City licensing office, Hamberger is trying to get his license to carry a firearm reinstated after he killed several people in what he claims was self-defense. During his failing attempts to smooth-talk the bureaucrat at the window into approving his license, a psychopath (Joe Spinell, looking very much the worse for wear) in line takes a woman hostage at gunpoint. After getting the bureaucrat to approve his application, Hamberger dispatches the psycho with two quick shots. It’s a ridiculous scene full of stereotypical characters and cheap, smutty jokes (Hamberger leeringly tells the woman “spread your legs, baby” so he can shoot the psycho in the leg before finishing him off). It’s also the closest thing to a good sequence in the entire film–which should tell you something.

Hamberger turns out to not only be trigger happy, but also an unlicensed private detective. He hangs out in a delicatessen, waiting for unsavory potential clients to find him via word-of-mouth. It’s through this unconventional way of staying in business that Alex Burton (Dennis Hallahan) approaches Hamberger. Burton is a wealthy businessman who wants his wife murdered. He doesn’t care if Hamberger does it himself or finds someone else, but he offers him $25,000 as a down payment with the promise of another $75,000 when his wife is actually murdered. Hamberger takes the $25,000 and promptly visits the wife (Fairchild in a comically cheap black wig) to warn her of her husband’s plans. He urges her to catch a plane and get out of town, but before she goes, she is so drawn in by the manly “charisma” that Hamberger practically oozes that she has a going-away fling with him.

Traveling back to his apartment, Hamberger has two things on his mind. The first is how he is going to deliver Burton to the cops for trying to set up his wife’s murder. The second is how he’s going to explain his all-night absence to Rina (Vanity), his assistant/girlfriend. Before he can focus on either of those problems, he is arrested by old friend/nemesis, police Detective Lefferts (Joe Cortese), for the murder of Sharon Burton (his fingerprints were all over the house where she was found dead).

But when the body in the morgue is of a different, much younger woman and a different man (John Beck) claiming to be Alex Burton arrives to I.D. the body, Hamberger realizes he has been set up. In the time-honored tradition of stretching credibility to its breaking point, Hamberger convinces Lefferts to release him to search for the real killer. Of course, Lefferts and the district attorney give Hamberger a deadline of just a few days or he will be charged with the murder.

This is—to say the least—a stale setup for a film. But despite the clichéd nature, it is a potentially solid basis for a fun, twisty thriller. Deadly Illusion has no intention of being fun or twisty. Instead, the film is the worst kind of ‘80s cheese with an incoherent plot that is missing the connective tissue required to make a story of this type work.

I’m not sure at what point Cohen was fired from the film or what the circumstances were that led to such a decision by the producers. He was replaced by William Tannen, a journeyman director who had one other feature film to his credit, but was better known for his work on commercials (he would later go on to direct the Chuck Norris vehicle Hero and the Terror). But its original director is not the only thing the film lost. Huge chunks of the plot also went out the window.

The conspiracy that Hamberger encounters in trying to unravel the truth includes drug dealing, a modeling agency, a former model (Fairchild again—this time with her usual bleached-blonde hair) who wants our hero dead, a psychopath who has homicidal tendencies toward his sister, and a makeup effects artist. The problem is that the film never explains how any of these elements fit into the film. In one arbitrary scene, the drug-dealing plot just happens and every character in the film acts as though it is clear where it came from. Even worse is a subplot about the effects artist who is found dead. Hamberger just accepts that the victim has something to do with his case and the audience is expected to accept this twist, as well. The whole film suffers from sloppy storytelling that feels like pages were randomly ripped from the screenplay to save time and money.

The painful truth is, even if the plot flowed smoothly and coherently, Deadly Illusion was destined to be a turkey the moment the cast was put together. No matter what the producers and Tannen did to the script after Cohen was fired, he chose the almost uniformly terrible cast.

The casting problems start right at the top with Williams as Hamberger. By the time Deadly Illusion was in production, Williams had long since turned into a parody of his smooth, seductive ‘70s persona. But as Hamberger he moves beyond parody into outright sleaziness. He leers at women like they’re pieces of meat, walks in an exaggerated strut, mugs for the camera with a shit-eating grin—even when it’s not appropriate for the moment, and generally gives off an aura of a faded sex symbol who still thinks he’s at the top of his game (never mind that he has two shirtless scenes where he uses his overcoat to cover up his obviously sagging torso). He is such a lightweight presence through the film, it’s impossible to buy him as a tough guy when he is beating up a drug dealer for information or angrily shooting a murderer.

Fairchild does nothing more than apply her usual vampy attitude to her dual role. But her presence as both the fake Sharon Burton and the former model is a terrible decision by Cohen. Her facial features are so specific, she is immediately recognizable to the audience as the same person, cheap black wig be damned. But having a plot that hinges on Hamberger not recognizing her as the same woman simply because of a wig is just another of the film’s plot failures.

And finally there is third-billed Vanity as Rina. Leaving aside how poorly her character is written by Cohen, Vanity should never have been cast in this or any other film. With her wooden way of delivering her lines as though she were reading them for the first time off a cue card and her stilted way of moving (and not moving) within the frame, she comes off as a particularly bad amateur in a shot-on-VHS basement film from the ‘80s. In a movie with a lot of bad performances, hers is particularly atrocious.

Of course, maybe the change in directors should take on some of the blame for the bad acting. The seams definitely show in the confusing, nearly nonsensical plot and the obvious lack of coverage (one long scene is presented through only a master shot with the actors obviously pausing in their dialogue and looking to check their movements for continuity with close-ups that were apparently never shot). Delivering a good performance on film is difficult under the best of circumstances, but getting feedback from different directors and having scenes arbitrarily cut is not conducive to bringing the best out of a performer.

The nagging question remains: would Deadly Illusion have been a good movie if Cohen hadn’t been fired? I doubt it. The character of Hamberger that makes it to the screen is kind of lecherous. He sees nothing wrong with using his girlfriend to escape from the cops after cheating on her, he cracks the same groan-worthy jokes over and over in a running gag that made me want to punch him, and there is the aforementioned problem with Williams’ casting that only highlights how paper thin the character is. It is possible to have a good film while actively disliking the protagonist (Cohen has pulled this off before with Q and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover), but the audience still has to understand why they behave the way they do. There has to at least be an empathy for the character we are asked to follow for ninety minutes. That is the first and most damning failure of Deadly Illusion. Beyond that is the lack of any social or political satire that Cohen brings to his better projects, a group of supporting characters that are so dull it almost becomes a running joke, and a presentation of New York City that is surprisingly bland.

Normally when I stumble across a truly dreadful film in which Cohen had some involvement, I say that it’s only for Larry Cohen completists. Considering his dismissal from Deadly Illusion, I’m not even certain that it is compulsory watching for my fellow Cohen obsessives. Avoid it at all costs.

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