Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Amazing Mr. X (Eagle-Lion, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Amazing Mr. X, a 1948 production by former RKO staff producer Ben Stoloff for the Eagle-Lion company, the former PRC studio that had just been taken over by J. Arthur Rank to provide a guaranteed American distribution outlet for his products. (He named his company after the American and British national animals to underscore the U.K.-U.S. union aspects of his enterprise, and the first year he owned it he had a blockbuster mega-hit, The Red Shoes, that drew big grosses on both sides of the Atlantic.) Rank’s participation indicated higher budgets for the company’s regular product, which in practice meant being able to hire “B”-list rather than “C”-list actors — the stars of this one were Lynn Bari (though according to an “trivia” poster the part was originally slated for Carole Landis, only just before shooting was to start she killed herself after Rex Harrison ended their affair and returned to his wife), Turhan Bey and Cathy O’Donnell. The plot, an original story (and for once the O-word is actually merited) by Crane Wilbur scripted by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter, casts Bari as Christine Burke Faber, widowed two years earlier but still clinging to the memory of her husband Paul (Donald Curtis). She still lives in the beach house they shared (a stunning exterior — almost certainly a model — that virtually becomes a character in the movie itself), she’s still got his picture almost everywhere she goes (and it does look like he’s watching her!), and as the movie opens she goes out on her balcony and thinks she hears his voice calling out to her. The only other people living there are her sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell), who’s just at that awkward late-teen age where she’s collecting boyfriends like other people collect stamps (though we never see any of these young swains, we know they exist when Christine and Janet are both going on dates the same night and Janet confesses she’s forgotten the name of the man who’s going to pick her up for a date that night). Christine has a suitor, Martin Abbott (Richard Carlson), who’s bought her an engagement ring, but she’s too busy walking the beach and communing with her husband’s spirit to have much use for a decent but rather dull living boyfriend. She’s approached by a fake psychic, Alexis (Turhan Bey), who offers to help her get in touch with Paul in the great beyond. Martin recruits Janet and a detective (Harry Mendoza) to get the goods on Alexis — they’ve already discovered he served a prison term for fraud in Chicago under the name “Monroe” — who’s a pretty standard-issue fake psychic for a 1930’s and 1940’s movie.

He’s got his live/work space (it seemed obligatory for all movie psychics just then — except the ones who made their livings at carnivals — to work out of their homes) tricked out with gimmicks like a pad on which his customers are supposed to write out their questions, then fold them and conceal them on their persons (the pad actually has carbon paper under it so he can read the copy and pretend he’s divined the question psychically), and a wire recorder he uses to play Paul’s favorite piece of music (the Chopin prelude, Op. 28, no. 4, which Paul, a pianist, used to play a lot around Christine). Instead of the usual dummy that represented the disembodied spirit, Alexis dons black velvet and a mask and plays that part himself; he’s got a trick chair into which his customers tie him, then lock him in a cabinet, though by kicking a part of the chair he can easily get out of the cabinet, slip off the rope and return to the darkened main room to play ghost. (Fake psychics of this period seem to have a lot more élan than the ones today who fake it with cold readings — “I see a blue house — no, a pink house … ,” continually guessing until they hit on the right color and the sucker says, “You’re right! It was a pink house!” — but as Charles once pointed out to me, modern-day fakers can’t use all the cool gimmicks of yesteryear because they’re angling for TV contracts and the tricks of old depended on darkness and would be exposed by the lights used to film for TV.) Martin’s plot to expose Alexis backfires big-time when Janet falls head-over-heels in love with him and erases the fingerprints Martin sent her in to get so he could compare them and prove Alexis is the long-since disgraced Monroe — only at the next séance, held at Christine’s home at Martin’s insistence because there Alexis can’t use the elaborate trick equipment he has at his own place, Paul indeed appears. Paul is able to appear because [spoiler alert!] he never really died: instead, he faked his own death as part of a scheme to get his hands on Christine’s family fortune. (Why? As Alexis asks him, wouldn’t it have been easier for him to stay married to Christine and kill her instead of faking his own death?) Now he insists that Alexis join him in a plot to extract the Burke fortune by marrying Janet — and when Alexis balks Paul points out that he can kill with impunity because according to the authorities he’s already “dead.”

The Amazing Mr. X — a title that, as one contributor noted, made it seem like a horror/sci-fi film instead of a Gothic melodrama verging on noir —is a weird mélange of The Uninvited, Gaslight and Laura, but it deploys the clichés in sufficiently fresh combinations it actually does seem fresh and original, and essentially it inverts the usual gender roles of noir by casting two relatively innocent women as victims of gold-digging hommes fatales. It’s also surprisingly well directed by someone named Bernard Vorhaus (he got his start in England and made the quite good film The Ghost Camera as his directorial debut — I remember watching that with Charles and being pleasantly surprised that the British film industry was capable of making a great thriller in the mid-1930’s even if Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t directing it! — and later at Republic he made the equally offbeat The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine, and looked like he’d have a shot at a major career when he was caught up in the Hollywood blacklist, as was someone else involved in this film, writer Ian McLellan Hunter) and vividly photographed by John Alton, who takes full advantage of all the Gothic opportunities of Frank Durlauf’s set designs (even though one wonders if there’s always fog in the foyer of Alexis’s home) to create marvelous effects of light and shadow. It’s also pretty well acted by a second-tier cast — this may be Lynn Bari’s best performance on film, not that that’s saying much for it, and Cathy O’Donnell’s simpering teen act gets wearing after a while, but Turhan Bey and Donald Curtis are marvelous as the bad guys and Richard Carlson is decent and un-creepy enough you really do want Bari to end up with him at the end. The Amazing Mr. X has acquired a cult reputation, enough that it deserves a full restoration — the print we were watching, a download from, was in relatively good condition, though the soundtrack was a bit on the muddy side and there were scratches and scratch noises at the beginnings and ends of each reel, suggesting careless handling of this print by projectionists — and even under these circumstances it was quite a movie, with a reversal that for once made sense and a dreamlike (il)logic to the story that was actually very moving.