Film Detective, which specializes in spiffy 4K restorations of items that have floated for years in public domain hell, unleashes a sterling Blu-ray of one of my secret favorite B films of the 1940s. Directed by low-budget maestro Bernard Vorhaus and released in 1948 as The Spiritualist, this unpredictable little specimen of spookery-pokery is now known by its reissue title, The Amazing Mr. X.
The film begins as it will continue, in dreamlike, mysterious, black and white splendor. During the opening credits, we look from a high cliff down upon an ant-like woman scurrying up the beach, crawling between forbidding rocks as the ocean waves crash and music roils majestically. The scene turns out to be a kind of god’s-eye view, or perhaps a raven’s view, of something that will happen in a few minutes.
The story begins with nightgowned, entranced Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) peering at the ocean from her window in a fabulous hilltop mansion, any of whose rooms look huge enough to stage a football game. She seems to hear the voice of her late husband calling her name from the ocean in a weird Sonovox effect. That’s especially strange because he didn’t drown; he died in a car wreck. Frankly, little of the story makes sense as it follows its own eerie, intuitive, incidental dream logic with dashes of self-puncturing comedy.
Christine’s dull, logical, attorney boyfriend Martin (Richard Carlson) lives in the mansion next door, so she walks along the beach to meet him after chatting with her little sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) about the weird voice. The beach walk turns into a strange epic as Christine meets Alexis (Turhan Bey), smoking a pipe beside his pet raven and delivering a patter about how his psychic powers tell him this and that about her life.
Here’s where it matters that we have a digitally restored 4K mastering from a 35mm print –Turhan Bey’s personal print, according to the notes. Due to budgetary limitations of Eagle-Lion Films (formerly PRC), these night scenes are shot in the day-for-night technique, and one elaborate composition of the couple, the raven and a gnarled tree is a process shot with the ocean rolling in the background. This could all look murky and cheap, but the film’s secret weapon is wizard cinematographer John Alton, who makes the very artifice look like part of a ravishing, disorienting dream.
There is plenty of phoniness in the dramatic set-up, for the story will soon enough confirm that our pencil-mustached Alexis is a charlatan preying on the widow Christine. The style underlines the unreal while delivering us into that psychological realm called the uncanny, where rational and supernatural explanations balance each other as equally likely.
Everyone on this film provides top work, including lush Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo; art director Frank Durlauf, who did good work in noirs for three years before moving to TV sitcoms; spooky effects men George J. Teague and Jack Rabin; and of course the actors.
Turkish-Austrian Bey, who became an exotic sex-object star in Universal’s wartime meringues with Maria Montez and Jon Hall, is suave, deceitful, and strangely sympathetic as Alexis, especially when he becomes someone else’s puppet. O’Donnell, magical in The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) and They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948), two of the decade’s greatest accomplishments, shimmers here with touches of delicate comedy. The unbelievably prolific Bari is possibly best known for another surreal dream-noir, Shock (Alfred L. Werker, 1946) with Vincent Price. The role of Christine gives her a strong yet ethereal presence.
Despite first-class efforts from all these people, we watch this film because it’s wall-to-wall Alton, and his foggy, light-moted, soft-focused work here is spellbinding. During the ’30s, he honed his craft as a big deal in the Argentine film industry, a national cinema woefully under-explored in North America. Now in collaboration with director Vorhaus, who encouraged Alton’s transition back to Hollywood and with whom he was completely sympatico, Alton is encouraged to construct expressive, sometimes surreal compositions marked by his talent for key lighting.
For example, that first scene in Christine’s gigantic room takes a surreal vantage point behind her dresser mirror. When she sits down and looks off to our side, Bari pretends to be looking into the mirror, and our POV is behind it. We’ll see the mirror against the wall when the next shot takes a different angle. This isn’t pointless trickery. It foreshadows the use of two-way mirrors in later scenes and implies we’re already in a Wonderland reality.
Miraculous shots from the bottom of her sink, with the water pouring down, or from under a transparent table with a crystal ball, also underline the methods of trickery and spying (and the lure of the water) that mark the story. Plus they’re way nifty. This is one of those films about which critics like to say you could hang any random shot on the wall and it’s beautiful.
As mentioned, the story makes little sense; it’s even lopsided and digressive in the way of dreams. For example, Christine’s perspective dominates the first half hour and then is abandoned as other characters come to the fore. This is part of the unpredictability. Within the disorientation, the characterizations and emotions work marvelously as each scene follows its uncanny path.
The story by Crane Wilbur, a busy writer-director-actor going back to the silents, was scripted by Muriel Roy Bolton, who wrote another classic “gaslighting” noir, My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945), and Ian McClellan Hunter, who later fronted for blacklisted writers. Vorhaus would be blacklisted and move to England, where he worked in real estate.
Film historian Jason A. Ney‘s commentary offers background on several artists and places the film within supernaturally-tinged noir hybrids and Alton’s other celebrated noirs, many of which emerged during that embarrassing flood of riches that marked late ’40s Hollywood and which is still astonishing to grasp. Ney also discusses the history of spiritualism, with attention to Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. A bonus feature covers more of this topic from the 19th Century hoaxes of the Fox sisters through mid-20th Century film treatments.
We have no hesitation in declaring this Blu-ray of The Amazing Mr. X to be the optimal presentation of a key work of chiaroscuro flamboyance.