The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

The Amazing Mr. X (1948) is a 1948 American horror thriller film noir directed by Bernard Vorhaus with cinematography by John Alton. It is also known as The Spiritualist, which is just as well, because nobody in it is called Mr X, or referred top as Mr X, although it's true that it does make a fairly sensational title.

The film tells the story of a phony spiritualist racket, which is rather excellently described with the various tricks of the trade merrily on display, much as they are in fairground noir Nightmare Alley (1947), which also reveals some of the tricks of the trickster's trade in all their shabby glory. 

The film is prominently featured in Alton's book on cinematography Painting with Light (1949) and , the photography does certainly have a full-on film noir feel, with its massive plays of dark and light around doorways and stairways and other architectural corners — including an interesting and repeated shot of the spiritualists at work via the crystal ball — shot from below. Some of the most memorably and recognisable film noir photography on the block.

Another of the stranger angles places the viewer inside a sink.

Elements of another firm favourite film noir motif persist throughout The Amazing Mr X in the form of the paranoid women trope.

The cast is well suited to their roles and I appreciated all their performances but the real star of the film is Turhan Bey. I was familiar with Bey from his work at Universal Studios in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Mad Ghoul (1943) as well as exotic adventure films such as Arabian Nights (1942) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) where he was often paired with the lovely Maria Montez. But his best work might just be in this B-Movie released by Eagle-Lion Films. Bey, the child of a Turkish father and Czechoslovakian mother, was nicknamed “The Turkish Delight” in Hollywood where he was widely known as a ladies man and dated a number of high-profile starlets including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.

Mysterious meetings in film noir Lynn Bari and Turhan Bey
The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Alton was clearly influenced by Val Lewton productions such as I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943) and Curse of the Cat People (1944), but he employees a number of techniques from his own bag of tricks that bolster the look of the film. The abundant low-angle shots and fuzzy filters give the production a surrealistic edge that invokes the paranormal world inhabited by the characters.

Recalling many of the other class act paranoid woman films of the 1940s. The Amazing Mr. X features Lynn Bari as a bereaved wife living in the crazy shadow of her ex-husband, with many of the paranoid woman tropes smothering her — this includes the big old spooky house on the edge of a cliff — an item of architecture popular indeed with the paranoid wives of the 1940s.

Ideals of a Gothic home in The Amazing Mr. X (1948)
Lynn Bari and Richard Carlson

That cliff — a similar example of this can be found in My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) — it's there for reasons of danger — most specifically it calls suicide for when the paranoid woman is driven too far.

Unstable Marriage in Film Noir
The Amazing Mr X. (1948) starring Lynn Bari

One of the more common sequences in expressing women's psychology and fears, largely of marriage, society, other women, shadows, marriage, the marital home, the marital bed and the marital nightie. 

And as with all the other paranoid women of the 1940s and 1950s, Lynn Bari has good reason to be paranoid, for in fact her dead husband is an utter all-out heartless money-grabbing cad and is driving her bonkers — while she, being a silly wife, lets all this happen and spends an inordinate amount of time dashing about in white bedclothes, wandering on the beach, or staring in a terrified manner into the dark.

The paranoia which Lynn Bari's mad wife-character feels is real however, and in this instance, she is not just played upon by a dead husband, but another much worse kind of charlatan — the amazing Mr. X of the title, an incredibly entertaining and charismatic fake spiritualist, played by Turhan Bey.

The freaked out wife has only one ally in this multifaceted realm of wickedness, and that is in the sweet form of Cathy O'Donell, who plays her younger sister. Together, these two women solve the surrounding mystery, which turns out to be pleasantly complex given there are two strands to this psychic attack — the fakery of the dead husband and the fakery of the fraudulent spiritualist.

The theme of the women entering the fray to solve the mystery is a common enough film noir trope, and although the police do barge in from time to time to add a bit of forceful male ambience. 

The dominant idea here of gaslighting is played large with the women of the picture falling for pretty much everything, suggestive as ever of the idea that the dating world is one of peril. This is post-war dating after all, and presumably the heroic men are going to be dead or suffering the trauma of war, leaving only the criminals, cowards and charlatans, the likes of which we meet here.

Voyeurism par excellence in classic film noir The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Super voyeuristic effect completes the immersive paranoid humbug of the spiritualist at work in the cinema of the 1940s, dark and magical and all of a sudden a place of reverse mirrors and worry.

All of this haunting spying foolery is accompanied by some special effects, of which it must be said, there were not a lot in 1948.  Christine, Lynn Bari's character, stares into the camera more than we might expect but it's to a great and dreamlike effect. 

Lynn Bari in The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Cathy O'Donnell in The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

The Amazing Mr. X (1948) is in the Public Domain and can be found on The Internet Archive. X. 

The film was retitled from its original, less interesting, but likely more accurate title which was The Spiritualist  reportedly because practising spiritualists in the country objected.

The letter X may be used gratuitously on a name, product, model, in order to add some kind of edge, and why would that be?  Add to that the curiosity that lower case x is not cool at all, just some weakling of a letter.

There's no actual justification to use the X. Another letter would easily work if the X was a part of a word. If it's in the designation of a vehicle or other object, it can't be a prototype. In such cases it stands for experimental, and gets changed or removed when it enters full production.

Similar, the X  is used as an abbreviation in an acronym for a word in English that has the ex- prefix, which would properly use E, but X looks cooler, of course. Only a few English words begin with X, and most of those derive from Greek. The same holds for most European languages. Also, when starting a word with X in English, it's usually pronounced like "z".

X Makes Anything Cool.

Robert Alton cinematography

The descriptor Amazing may often be a matter of opinion and should possibly be reserved for amazing people and events, and even though we are referring to a medium, it does not seem appropriate enough for a cool-ass film noir horror fantasy hybrid, and the quieter alternate title The Spiritualist is surely better.

Tuhran Bey in The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Donald Curits in The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

The alpha males of psychological fantasy noir drink expensive brandies while they have it out in the gloom. 

Everyone but them is in a suggestible state by this point in The Amazing Mr. X (1948), including the police who are sure that something is up, but are too easily fooled by Turhan Bey's amazing Mr. X character — real name Alexis — hence an amazing X in his name. Probably the best role that Turhan Bey was given, he is said to have liked it more than any of his other films, and you can see why.

Adding “Amazing” and the letter “X” to a movie was typical of Hollywood beginning in the 1920s and carried on well into the 1960s. Some examples of this include The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), The Amazing Mr. Forrest (1939), The Amazing Mr. Beecham (1949), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) as well as Madame X (1929), Doctor X (1932), The Return of Doctor X (1939), X the Unknown (1956) and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) just to list a few. 

While The Amazing Mr. X does share some commonality with noirish thrillers such as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Nightmare Alley (1947) that dabble in spiritualism, I think it shares a lot more in common with classic horror films such as The Leopard Man (mentioned earlier) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), which suggest the uncanny but rely on the appalling depths of human cruelty to explain the horrors they eventually reveal.

No comments:

Post a Comment