Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Made for humble Eagle Lion by the fairly obscure Bernard Vorhaus, The Amazing Mr. X is also known under the more apt but rather generic title The Spiritualist. The original title is schlocky, the cover art even more so. But don’t let that fool you. Despite these shortcomings the movie is a tad more sophisticated than we may expect. The Amazing Mr. X is a unique and slightly loony hybrid of genres. Though it starts like a horror movie, the picture’s dynamic changes pretty quickly. It is in fact part Gothic, part horror, part Noir, part fantastic thriller and part cynical reflection on the gullibility of desperate people. The movie can’t be pigeonholed but these mismatched elements come together amazingly well. 

For the longest time only available as a mediocre quasi-bootleg copy, the film has finally been rescued from public domain hell by Columbia and given the full restoration treatment.

Whatever we choose to call it, I found the film utterly haunting. Some reviewers called it a turkey but I don’t see the reason for it. It all comes together beautifully. No doubt it’s occasionally over-baked and feverish, and there’s a few implausible chunks of plot for the viewer to either swallow or choke on. But those are features not flaws. There is something beautifully sorrowful and melancholy about it, in no small measure helped by Alexander Laszlo’s lush score, with support by two of Chopin’s soulful Nocturnes.

What puts this movie heads and shoulders above other B movies of its kind (e.g. The Inner Sanctum Series) is the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer John Alton who was hired to add a touch of class and magic to the proceedings. Alton was the master of shadows, darkness and gloomy nights where the headlights could hardly reach beyond the end of a cigarette butt. He imbues the film with a misty and unearthly glow, making the most of the seaside setting. The wild water of the ocean, the relentless crashing waves, windswept beaches and the hazy moonlight steep the movie in a dreamy aura filled with haunting images and a phantasmal mood that mirror the torrent of emotions experienced by those who can’t let go of the past because the dead still have a claim upon them.

The movie has some lovely little unexpected touches here and there. A tip of the hat has to go to private eye Hoffman (Harry B. Mendoza) who's not your run-of-the-mill PI. The actor who played Hoffman was actually a real magician and he makes good use of his sleight of hand abilities in the film. He knows the tricks of the trade and has made it his mission in life to expose phony psychics. Hoffman is always looking for someone’s card up the sleeve. When he begins to produce an endless stream of cigars while keeping up an effortless conversation, it’s a little gem. Hoffman is just a bit part, but it adds so much to the film.

We also get a little nod to Edgar Allan Poe in the shape of a cool little black Raven (who may be a crow) who is very attached to his master Alexis.

Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a young widow, lost her husband Paul two years ago in a car accident. She lives in a seaside cliff-top mansion and one night starts to hear voices in the dark. It is as if the sea outside her window is calling her name. Christine believes her husband is attempting to communicate with her from beyond the grave. She is rattled and goes for a stroll on the beach where she runs into a dark, suave and debonair stranger, self-professed medium Alexis (Turhan Bey). He convinces her that he can communicate with Paul’s spirit though her new finance Martin (Richard Carlson) is more than skeptical. Soon Christine’s much younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) falls under Alexis’ spell and all of a sudden, Paul comes back from the dead. That’s something Alexis hasn’t counted on. It seems he has raised more spirits than he can command. 

Turhan Bey - an actor previously unknown to me - is perfect as Alexis. He’s a sham spiritualist who targets desperate grief-stricken people - well-heeled of course - haunted by their memories of loved ones lost. He has the phony spook racket down to a science. At his residence, he has created a spellbinding setup of ghostly shenanigans. It resembles a carnival fun house with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, crystal balls, trap-door cabinets, strange projections, automatic doors and marvelous set decorations including a large image of a "third eye”. During his dramatic séances disembodied heads and hands fly around magically. Playing up the theatrical angle, Alexis seems to live in the metaphysical realm of shadows and spirits, far removed from earthly wants and desires.

Alexis’ clairvoyance stuns his clients. Somehow, mysteriously he knows about their background and is able to read and pinpoint their innermost thoughts, fears and dreams.
To Christine’s surprise and shock, he knows things a stranger could not possibly know, details about Paul’s death in a burning car and her new fiancé’s little idiosyncrasies.

Alexis’ success is easy to explain. He’s a charming and charismatic charlatan with the carefully cultivated image of a mystic.
He understands psychology 101 and knows how to push the right buttons. His strongest ally is his victims’ desperation and romanticism. He has a penetrating insight into the human psyche and and tells his clients exactly what they want to hear. A skilled magician can easily fool those who want to be fooled. Gullibility is a weakness easily preyed upon. 
He doesn’t neglect the practical side though. He plants his accomplice Emily into his targets’ houses as a maid so she can feed him all the information he needs.

There’s something of the Svengali about Alexis. He quite smartly wets people’s appetites and then leaves them dangling wanting to know more. "I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again…”, he says to Christine. And she’s hooked.

It is to Bey’s credit that his Alexis doesn’t end up as a one-note caricature. He’s a well-rounded character with more depth in him than even he thought possible.

Two years after Paul’s death, Christine is still shuttered in her grief and can’t let go of his memory. 
Some reviewers have called her character a bit dim for falling so easily for a fraud, but for me she’s simply emotionally unbalanced and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s easily duped by Alexis’ apparent clairvoyance simply because she so desperately wants to believe that Paul is alive. Lynn Bari, so often the evil temptress, turns in a likable and sensitive performance as a woman who doesn’t know if she’s going crazy or being haunted by a ghost. 
It is an exploration of the classic Noir theme of a person’s desperate desire to recover a lost past. The presence is too bleak a place for Christine. The past is where happiness lies, or so she thinks. It will turn out to be an impossible dream with bitter consequences.

Nowhere is the past’s controlling influence more evident than in Paul’s towering portrait that looms large in the living room. Life-sized portraits play a big role in many (Noir) films (most notably Laura, Scarlet Street, The Lodger, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) and there’s always something unsettling about them, especially when the subject in the picture is dead. These portraits are like ghosts from another time. They're a way for the dead to keep an eternal watch, and - more importantly - a hold over the living from the beyond. Their eyes follow us around, sometimes questioning, sometimes reproachful, sometimes daring but never ignored. 

Paul’s portrait dominates the room, yet Christine’s immortal beloved is not a soothing but a menacing presence. Paul’s gaze is fierce and gripping. When Christine accepts Martin’s engagement ring, Paul is literally there between them starring at them disapprovingly. Christine can’t let go of the past, and the portrait won’t let go of Christine.

Christine sister, Janet, is at first only too keen on exposing Alexis as a fraud and rescuing her sister from his clutches. But it’s not long until she falls under the smooth operator’s spell. He’s not above laying the smarmy charm on really thick. Her common sense goes right out of the window.

There is a case of serious sibling rivalry on display. Christine, the elder, basically brought her young sister up. There don’t seem to be any parents in the picture. Janet confesses when she was younger she was jealous of her older sister because every man was only paying attention to her. The short but very telling opening scene can easily be missed. The shadow of Janet advances on Christine's turned back, and in her hand is something that could be mistaken for a gun. It turns out to be a hairbrush, but it gives us a clue about their future relationship.
Alexis holds both both women in a thrall though in different ways, and their rivalry comes to a head when Janet falls for Alexis.

All seems to be going swimmingly for Alexis, nonetheless there’s one thing that didn’t figure in his plans. Paul didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil years ago. At a séance at Alexis’ house he materializes out of nothing and no-one is more surprised than Alexis.
Alexis’ deception turns out to be far from the cruelest, he has nothing on Paul’s devilish machinations. Paul’s plan is to bring his wife to commit suicide by literally driving her crazy with drugs and then luring her to the cliffs expecting her to fall or jump to a watery grave. That would free the way for Alexis to marry Janet and all three of them could live happily ever after off Christine’s considerable fortune. If Alexis doesn’t want to go along with his machinations, well, there’s always a cell waiting for him at the state pen. The police would be immensely interested in his dubious séances. The dead who don’t stay dead make a beastly nuisance of themselves.

But Alexis doesn’t play. He may be a fraud who tries to squeeze as much money out of gullible suckers as possible, but there’s a line he doesn’t cross and that’s murder.
It’s interesting that the guy we think in the first half is the bad guy is replaced by one who is much more sinister and truly despicable. It changes the horror movie dynamics of the plot into something decidedly mundane. Murder for cold hard cash. 

Christine has to wake up to a harsh truth. Her past was a lie. Paul was never the wonderful husband she took him to be, but a gold-digging Bluebeard with a habit of bumping off wives for their inheritance. When the dead return, they not only defile their own image and memorial, they are a source of utter terror.

In the end Alexis is not beyond redemption and not quite the scoundrel he - and others - thought him to be. He saves Christine when she tumbles down the cliffs and ultimately takes a bullet for Janet when Paul wants to shoot her.

Of course the ending is Code-imposed, both Alexis and Paul must die, though it also becomes clear that before life can go on ghosts and illusions - both imagined and real - must be laid to rest. Christine can only be free if her fool's paradise is destroyed. Her whole past was a construct of wishes and rose-colored memories. 

Before he dies Alexis admits to Janet who he's come to love: 
"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long.”
Life is in the present. Alexis doesn't want Janet to make the same mistake as her sister. The dead must lie in their graves, easy or not.

The Amazing Mr. X is an incredibly watchable movie despite its occasional shortcomings and certain indisputably campy interludes.


  1. I'm an Eagle-Lion fan (so many nostalgic favourites), and a fan of Turhan Bey, but I haven't seen this film you describe so vividly and interestingly. You and YouTube are my friends.

    1. Thank you so much. :) The youtube print is OK, this movie is really worth buying. The new DVD is stunning.

      It seems Turhan Bey was mostly a horror actor, so I guess that's why he was unknown to me.

    2. Hey, I'm not adverse to buying DVDs. Thanks.

      Here's an Eagle-Lion fave of mine you might get a kick out of. I have only seen it on YouTube in a not-so-great print, but it is a fun comedy detour down an alley off of your mean street: http://www.caftanwoman.com/2015/03/the-luck-of-irish-blog-othon-george.html

    3. Eagle Lion was certainly one of the better Poverty Row studios who made many little gems.

      I do need a little break from my depressing movies occasionally. The Luck of the Irish is still on youtube, I'll check it out.

    4. Ignore what I just wrote. The movie is of course Out of the Blue, NOT The Luck of the Irish. Out of the Blue is also still on youtube. Looks really cute.

    5. I knew you knew what you were talking about.

  2. This sounds very interesting. I love the joy of discovering a little known film. Thanks for the introduction to this! Great review. Maddy

  3. Nice review, glad you enjoyed it too.

  4. Eagle-Lion was not Poverty Row it was J. Arthur Rank, with the deepest of deep pockets attempting to make an inroad to the American Distribution market. They were absorbed after some two years by United Artists. Now PRC was poverty row and they along with a few other lesser outfits were absorbed by Rank/Eagle-Lion.

    1. I would most certainly put Eagle Lion in the ranks of Poverty Row. You're right, it certainly wasn't the bottom of the barrel, but it also was not Republic - the Cadillac of PR - which at some time made the jump to the "better" studios.

      Nowadays Eagle Lion is known for having produced many (lesser) classics - such as Raw Deal and T-Men, and Anthony Mann worked there too - but at the time, Eagle was neither one of the major studios nor one of the minor studios like Universal and Columbia. If you want to we can call it an independent studio with lots of talent in their ranks, or an in-betweener.

    2. Republic was also, not Poverty Row. And you can tell by the people they had there making big bucks, such as, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, Frank Lloyd, Fritz Lang, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ray Milland, Orson Welles, and a significant list beyond those people.

    3. That is what I said. Republic was never wholly a PR outfit. Later it was too successful to truly fit the bill, especially with John Wayne and John Ford on board. At a certain point it jumped to the minor majors.

      Eagle Lion I still call quasi PR.

  5. And not Allied Artists either. They grew out of real poverty row Monogram, but Allied had money to spend and look at the talent they attracted: Gary cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Bill Wilder, and later on John Huston, Michael Cine, Sean Connery. As for Eagle-Lion, anyone can call them small and be right, but poverty row studios were called that for a reason.

  6. Not really about opinion, but okay. Oh, and I think your articles are outstanding. Insightful and good reading.