Peter Stone was a rare writer who was as successful on Broadway as he was in Hollywood.
In 1969, Stone was involved with one of the biggest sleeper hits in the history of Broadway — “1776” — and show folk gave most of the credit for the musical’s success to the book writer who turned American history into gripping theater.
Stone, who died in 2003, had a way of mixing fact and fiction without ever letting the seams show, something he pulled off spectacularly in his finest screenplay — the 1974 adaptation of the John Godey book “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”
The movie mixed thrills and laughs while telling us a lot about the operation of the New York subway system and city politics during a time of financial crisis — Stone did all of this while never losing sight of the central suspense plot about a subway hijacking.
Stone loved the messiness of New York City and its distinctive cynical humor — he knew both the high and low ends of Manhattan life.
Nine years before he did “Pelham One Two Three,” Stone wrote another Manhattan thriller, “Mirage,” that hasn’t gotten much attention in recent years because it went out of print on VHS a long time ago and then took forever to be issued on DVD.
Tomorrow night at 8, it will be my pleasure to introduce a “Martini & a Movie” screening of the wonderful Peter Stone thriller at the Fairfield Theatre Company.
The movie is a perfect addition to the ongoing FTC season of films about New York City because Stone’s witty, cynical story couldn’t take place anywhere else. “Mirage” is long overdue for a rediscovery.
When I screened the film recently, I loved its distinctive Stone mix of comedy and suspense in a story about a Manhattan business executive (Peck) suffering from amnesia in the aftermath of a strange power failure in his downtown office building.
Perhaps at the insistence of Stone and director Edward Dmytryk, “Mirage” contained more Manhattan location footage than most movies of the period — it was shot in 1965, right before Mayor John Lindsay set up the film office that eased shooting on the streets (“Pelham One Two Three” couldn’t have been made without the film office).
The ease with which Stone juggled suspense, romance (Diane Baker plays a woman of genuine mystery), and comedy is still impressive.
What grounds the whole thing, however, is a cast of characters made up of genuine New York types, including a TV-loving hood played by Broadway veteran Jack Weston and, especially, Walter Matthau as private detective Ted Cassell.
The confused executive has no one to turn to when he staggers into the Columbus Circle office of AAA Detective Agency (called that by Cassell so it would be listed first in the phone book). Cassell has just gone into the private eye business, but he knows how his city works and proves to be invaluable to the executive.
Matthau had been playing small roles in movies for the better part of a decade and at the time of “Mirage” was just about to land the stage role in “The Odd Couple” that would push him into Hollywood stardom in his late 40s (Matthau repeated his 1965 stage role, Oscar Madison, in the equally successful 1968 movie version of the Neil Simon comedy).
The actor got special billing in “Mirage” and earned it with a scene-stealing performance that ends with one of the most unsettling exits since Janet Leigh stepped into that shower in “Psycho.”
“Mirage” weakens slightly at the very end — with a too long expository scene explaining the Peck character’s forgotten life as a scientist — but it clearly paved the way for Peter Stone’s “Pelham One Two Three” triumph.