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):

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Killers (1946)

Robert Siodmak's 'The Killers' from 1946 is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Two hit men drive into a small town looking for a guy named the Swede. They end up in a diner and inquire about him. As it turns out the Swede has dinner there regularly, so they decide to wait for him. After it becomes clear the Swede, who is known as Pete Lunn in town, won't show up that evening, the hit men head for his apartment. One of the people in the diner, Lunn's co-worker Nick Adams, quickly takes a shortcut to Lunn's apartment to warn him. Lunn says that nothing can be done about it, that he made a mistake once and tells his co-worker to leave. The hit men arrive a bit later and unload their guns on Lunn. Only 12 minutes into the movie, this is where Hemingway's story ends and where the movie's second part starts.

After his death, insurance investigator Jim Riordan does a routine check into the Swede's death and the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. He is intrigued by the murder, Nick's recollection of Lunn's final words and a green handkerchief with harps on it that he finds among the Swede's belongings. The beneficiary turns out to be a lady who once rented out a room to Lunn, however she knew him as Ole Anderson, and he was desperate and almost suicidal last time she saw him. Riordan is now deadset on finding out what caused Anderson's death and starts an investigation into Anderson's past and the events that led to his untimely death. He meets up with a childhood friend of Anderson, police officer Sam Lubinsky, and together they start to unravel things, including an unsolved robbery Anderson was involved in, the stolen money which was never recovered, a gorgeous lady called Kitty Collins and all the doublecrossing that took place.

Ole 'the Swede' Anderson (Burt Lancaster in his first role) was a prizefighter once with a pretty girlfriend, Lilly Harmon (Virginia Christine) and a good friend called Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene). He's force to retire from fighting due to an injury, and turns to crime as a new career, despite Lubinsky being a cop, thus pitting them against each other. At a party that Ole attends with Lilly he meets 'femme fatale' Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner in one of her first major roles), and he falls head over heels for her, something which he doesn't even try to hide from Lilly. Kitty, being the seductress and vixen she so clearly is, doesn't mind pushing the dagger a bit deeper into Lilly's heart when Ole and Lilly are introduced to Kitty and briefly discuss Ole's prizefighting. After Kitty mentions she does not care for watching men fight, Lilly quickly remarks 'I saw all Swede's fights.' obviously trying to show her devotion to Anderson, whom she's in love with. Kitty however has the perfect rebuttal: 'How wonderful of you! I could never bear to see a man I really cared for being hurt.' Kitty is then called away and Ole adds insult to injury by casually and almost absent-mindedly remarking (more to himself than to Lilly): 'She's beautiful.' Auch, that's pretty damn harsh. Obviously Lilly knows the score by now. But Ole becomes even more oblivious to Lilly's presence as Kitty sings a song and Ole is standing close to her, admiring her, leaving Lilly to fend for herself. If this had been a scene from a cartoon, Anderson would have been standing in a pool of his own drool, he's that taken in with Kitty. I have to say, a fair amount of the more 'high end' film noirs feature a scene with one of the main female leads singing a song, which is something I don't really care for. Whether it's Marlene Dietrich in 'Witness For The Prosecution' or Ava Gardner in this movie, I find these songs to be rather dull and boring and not really adding much to the movie. Oh well...

Kitty plays a crucial role in Anderson's downfall, as expected. When Anderson's in prison (arrested by Lubinsky no less) she hooks up with Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) who is the mastermind behind the robbery, which is to take place shortly. After Anderson's out of of prison again he gets asked to join Colfax's gang for the robbery. Kitty is also present when Anderson first meets up with Colfax and the gang. As she lies on the bed and Anderson sits next to it, you can see Kitty delighting over Anderson's uneasiness at her presence. Her claws are still dug deep into him. Kitty Collins is played by Ava Gardner in one of her first major roles, and damn, what a vixen she is! She's stunningly gorgeous in this movie, with a cool demeanor and a look that screams sex (even though this could not be shown or mentioned in too direct a manner at the time, but seductive stares, and veiled innuendos more than made up for it). While Veronica Lake still tops my list of film noir femme fatales, Gardner is definitely up there.

Ole Anderson on the other hand is not the most clever criminal ever. His motives appear fairly basic, greed (for money) and lust (for Kitty). But he's not cold, determined or calculated enough to truly succeed as a criminal, or as Kitty's lover. And his feelings for Kitty (which some might call love, but which I think is more lust-motivated than anything else) definitely get in the way of him seeing that he's being used as a patsy by those around him, including by Kitty. He does eventually figure it out, but by then it is too late and he has no choice but to change identity and disappear to a small town. Burt Lancaster plays him really well. I don't know whether it was intentional or not, but Lancaster played Anderson with an almost absent-minded look in his eyes which to me is a good fit for Anderson's character. But the best performances in the movie to me are those of Ava Gardner and especially Edmond O'Brien. His Jim Riordan is exactly the kind of tough and almost hard-boiled character that you'd expect to find in a film noir. He smokes a lot, he addresses women as 'honey' or 'baby' and he's determined to find out what's going on. His lines could have been straight out of a hard-boiled detective story, except he's not a detective or a criminal, he investigates insurance claims. I loved his character and his tenaciousness.

The opening scene is amazing on more than one level. Everything about it is perfect. The two hit men, Al and Max (William Conrad and Charles McGraw), are as tough and hard-boiled as they come. Their faces show hardly any emotion as they spew rapid-fire vitriolic lines at the other people in the diner. Through words they turn the atmosphere at the diner around from pleasant to dark and menacing. While they do eventually show a gun, it is their use of words that truly terrorizes the people present. The shots, especially the outside scenes and those inside Anderson's apartment, are very dark and shadowy, also creating a tense atmosphere. Add to that the awesome soundtrack, scored by Miklós Rózsa. Its tone is as threatening as the scene eventually becomes and really draws you in. Parts of it are repeated again in key parts of the movie. The theme of the soundtrack really adds to the movie here and the overall feel of the movie.

One of the other standout scenes in the movie besides the opening scene is the flashback of the actual robbery of the hat factory. In one long continuous single take we see how the robbery takes place, from the moment the robbers walk through the hat factory gate to the moment they speed away in their cars. I hadn't realized until the scene was almost over that I was still looking at the same take, it is so smooth, captivating and natural-looking. It is one of the many scenes in the movie that shows the expert direction of Siodmak who also directed other notable film noirs and crime movies such as 'Criss Cross' (1949, again with Burt Lancaster), 'The File On Thelma Jordon' (1950) and 'The Spiral Staircase' (1945). I don't know how many takes had to be done for this, or why Siodmak decided to do it like this in the first place, but it works so well. A truly great scene.

It's an awesome, suspenseful and intriguing movie and a perfect introduction into film noir. I know this because it was my own 'formal' introduction into film noir. 'The Killers' was the first film noir I watched because of it being film noir. It's considered one of the great film noirs and it is easy for me to see why. The story, the way it unfolds through flashbacks that build onto each other, all the doublecrossing, Kitty Collins, the way it's filmed... Great, great stuff.

Here's the trailer, which also features the amazing soundtrack: