Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Amazing Mr.X (1948)

This is a very nice little oddity. 'The Amazing Mr.X' from 1948, also known as 'The Spiritualist', is not exactly a prime example of film noir, but it's got enough noir elements to warrant review on this blog. What it is however is simply a fun movie with outstanding noir lighting and cinematography with an interesting combination of horror, mystery and film noir with a psychic/supernatural edge that is quite unique but in my opinion works remarkably well.

The Mr.X/spiritualist from the titles refer to Alexis, a con-artist who calls himself a 'psychic consultant'. He uses some pretty neat trickery as well as research into his victims, psychology, his natural charm & way with words and a keen ability to read people to lure in unsuspecting victims, predominantly wealthy widows, and make a nice profit out of their gullibility and grief. His latest 'prey' is Christine Faber. She lives in a huge mansion on top of a cliff overlooking the sea, together with her much younger sister Janet. Her husband Paul died 2 years earlier in a car crash and she's about to be engaged to Martin Abbott, even though she still misses Paul and is haunted by memories of him and hears his voice calling out to her from out on the beach. As it turns out, the voices are more real than Christine, or Alexis, thinks. Alexis might be after Christine's money, but a far more dangerous shadow is planning to take a lot more from Christine, as Paul turns out to not be as dead as initially thought.

While not exactly a classic example of film noir, this movie directed by Bernard Vorhaus does have noir elements. The use of stark contrasting shadows and lighting is definitely one of them. As 'low budget' as this movie was, the cinematography as well as the visual ideas are outstanding. The lighting and cinematography was done by John Alton, who once said 'the most beautiful photography is in a low-key, with rich blacks'. He sure lived up to those words with his work for this movie! This was a low-budget movie by all means but Alton made it a work of beauty. There are many fine examples of his outstanding work throughout this movie. Some that come to mind:
  • The opening scene where Christine is standing on the balcony and the shadow of a person holding a gun moves in, but which turns out the be Janet holding a hairbrush. It's very effective in its simplicity and is a sign that something bad will happen to Christine.
  • After Martin proposes to Christine and gives her an engagement ring, she goes to a lamp to look at it more closely. The lamp is switched off and the wall behind it is dark except for the face of Paul, overlooking the shot. As she switches on the lamp we see it's a painting of Paul sitting at his piano. Once Martin comes over as well, we see Christine and Martin on either side of the lamp, with Paul in the middle, as if he's judging their relationship.
  • At the seance with Christine and Janet there's a similar shot where the only illumination comes from the crystal ball with Christine and Janet sitting on either side of it, and for a few moments a 'third eye' appears right above the crystal ball. Very creepy! These seances also have hands flying around through the air and other ghostly effects. Good stuff!
  • Almost every scene at Alexis' house, especially during the various seances, is filled with beautiful lighting and innovative visual effects.
  • One shot is filmed through the bottom of a sink in Christine's bathroom. I have no idea why they did the shot that way, but it's quite striking. The same concept is used, more effectively in my opinion, during the seances where the camera looks from below the table through the table at the people sitting around the crystal ball. It is a very clever trick to add a phantasmal element to those scenes, almost as if we're looking through a spirits eye, right before the spirit makes itself known to the people sitting at the table.

Another stand-out aspect of the film is Alexis and the actor playing him, Turhan Bey. Alexis is shown to be a phoney early on in the movie, which works quite well here to me, now we can enjoy his tricks even more unabashedly. Alexis is incredibly enjoyable in how he goes about deceiving people. I found some of his methods to be quite convincing not to mention very entertaining to watch. He uses a tame raven for a sinister touch to his persona, he uses shadows and lights in really clever ways to create a mystic and ghostly atmosphere, and he uses more 'modern' tricks such as automatic sliding doors, carbon paper and a one-way mirror to get a good idea of people's intentions and get inside their heads. Not to mention he's incredibly charming, great with words and has a lot of confidence in his own ability to read and deceive people. He also has a partner helping him out with researching people so he's better prepared. As to Turhan Bey, I am unfamiliar with his other movies but from what I read he was usually typecast into stereotypical villain roles. While he's a villain here as well, his character is quite complex and he is definitely not a stereotypical ruthless villain. Bey is truly great here, he obviously greatly enjoyed playing Alexis and gave Alexis a lot of depth and a three-dimensional character. There's smoothness, charm, wit, playfulness, deviousness, even heroism in Alexis. Some might say Alexis is quite the slimey smooth criminal, but I found him too entertaining and enthusiastic in his methods to really dislike him. He's quite the character!

Christine is played by Lynn Bari. I don't know if this was the director's intent but she stares almost directly into the camera quite a bit, which felt awkward to me. Maybe that was the intent however, giving Christine a more 'dreamy' character who cannot help but pine for her dead husband. The problem for me however is that she's a bit too one-dimensional. Lynn Bari plays her role well enough but her character just comes across too flat and absent-minded for me, Christine hardly questions what's happening with and around her. It's as if she's on sedatives half the time.

Janet is played by Cathy O'Donnell who was already in her 20s at the time, but Janet's character could be 16, she could be 21, it is unclear. Whatever age she is however, she's much more skeptic than Christine is as she doesn't believe in Alexis' powers for one second, and she is also far more industrious than Christine. She does also have a naive, impressionable side to her, as she's completely taken in by Alexis when she meets him and she even develops a crush for him. I also have to say that her performance would not be so effective anymore in modern movies, her wide-eyed puzzled look is a bit too comical for current-day thrillers.

Martin Abbott is played by Richard Carlson, but his character is not really fleshed out. He's there, and that's about it. His main contribution to this movie consists of involving detective Hoffman, together with Janet, to look into exposing Alexis. Detective Hoffman is played by Harry Mendoza (real name: Harry Bernard Solomon), who was a real-life magician and his background is used quite effectively here, as that is also Hoffman's background. He does some cool sleight-of-hand tricks when Janet and Martin first meet him and his magician's background is used to give his character a deeper motive for exposing frauds. He is also the person who knows the sort of tricks Alexis pulls off during his seances, but due to circumstances he doesn't quite manage to, quite literally, pull the trigger on Alexis in one of the scenes.

As mentioned, the real villain of this movie, and one who was thought to be dead at the start of the movie, is Paul, played by Donald Curtis. Unlike Alexis, he is ruthless and callous and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. It is unclear why he faked his own death and why he waited two years before going after Christine's estate and money, also because when he does explain his intentions to Alexis, he blackmails Alexis into helping him out, seemingly because he needs an accomplice. There are some gaping plotholes when it comes to Paul's character, but oh well... It didn't bother me all that much.

There is also a recurring (almost minimalist) musical piece, a prelude, in this movie. It was Paul's favorite piece and it becomes this creepy soundtrack that adds to the overall atmosphere whenever it is played.

This is a fun movie, and while I originally rated it 7 out of 10 on IMDb, after watching it again for this blog, I changed my rating to an 8. Yes, it's unashamedly B and low-budget, but it's a lot of fun, it keeps you drawn in, and the lighting is simply beautiful. Don't pass up on this one, it's got something for everyone.

I watched a version of this movie that is available on However, it is not the best copy around and even misses some (very short, but noticeable) parts. A better copy is available from Sony, as evidenced by this clip (I've not seen the full version of this DVD tho):

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