Monday, 29 April 2013

The Amazing Mr X (1948)

The Amazing Mr X is a bit of an oddity. In the late 40s horror movies were very much out of favour. But this isn’t quite a horror movie. It’s more of a psychological thriller with hints of the supernatural. This 1948 release from Eagle-Lion, directed by Bernard Vorhaus, also has one huge factor in its favour - it was photographed by the great John Alton. That’s reason enough to watch any movie.

After two years Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) has still not recovered from the death of her husband Paul. Walking along the beach on her way to a date with her current boyfriend Martin (Richard Carlson) she thinks she hears Paul’s voice calling to her. On the beach she encounters a mysterious stranger (played by Turhan Bey). His pet raven is a pretty sure sign that he has some connection with the occult. He seems to know all about Christine, in fact he knows things that no stranger could possibly know.

She later finds out that the stranger, whose name is Alexis, is a psychic. Her kid sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) is sure that this Alexis must be a fake. Janet and Martin hire a private detective to investigate him. The detective, Hoffmann (Harry Mendoza), used to be a stage magician. Like most professional illusionists he has an extreme dislike for phony psychics and there is nothing he enjoys more than exposing the tricks used by fake mediums. As he explains, he knows all their tricks.

We soon discover that Alexis is indeed a fake. But as fake psychics go he’s very good indeed. To be a success at that racket you need a considerable understanding of psychology and a great deal of charm. Alexis has both. Even though Janet is convinced he’s a charlatan she is still charmed by him. Even the private detective can’t help having a grudging respect for Alexis - he recognises that Alexis is a true pro. Alexis quickly attains an overwhelming influence on Christine. She is exactly the sort of woman who is vulnerable to such tricksters - she is emotional, she is troubled, and she is rich.

Alexis soon finds that he is not the only phony with his claws into Christine, and he becomes involved (not entirely willingly) in a sinister and dangerous plot. Both Christine and Janet are endangered.

The plot sounds a bit thin, and it is. Fortunately this movie is particularly well executed and it has several large pluses in its favour. The characters are exceptionally well-developed and complex. Janet knows with the rational part of her mind that Alexis is a fake but she can’t help being swept off her feet. Alexis is very complex indeed. He’s a phony and a swindler but he does have certain moral standards. There are some lines he will not cross, and the plot he finds himself involved crosses those lines. He can play along and make a great deal of money or he can do the decent thing for once and put himself at risk of exposure. Alexis himself does not know which choice he will make until the time comes when he must make a decision.

Turhan Bey is perfectly cast. He is suave and charming but without being irritating. We know Alexis is a crook but we can’t help liking him. It’s a nicely judged performance. Turhan Bey is careful never to allow Alexis to become a figure of fun. In fact the movie as a whole avoids playing the situation in the obvious way, which would have been for laughs.

Lynn Bari does a fine job as Christine, a character who could easily have come across as an airhead, but fortunately everyone concerned in this production took it seriously enough to avoid making any of the characters seem foolish. Cathy O’Donnell is pert and lively and generally charming as Janet. Harry Mendoza makes the most of his small role as the magician turned private detective. Donald Curtis is an effective villain.

The real star though is cinematographer John Alton. Genius is an over-worked word but there’s really no other way to describe Alton. The style of the movie is obviously inspired by Val Lewton’s successful series of horror movies made at RKO in the 40s, and Alton was a master of that kind of moody photography. He pulls off some wonderfully inventive shots,  notably a shot where Janet is leaning over a sink and the camera appears to be shooting her from inside the sink. These kinds of camera tricks can be unnecessarily distracting but in a horror movie such as this they work extremely well, adding considerably to the atmosphere. This really is a superbly photographed movie. Alton also does some impressive deep-focus work.

Sadly Image Entertainment’s DVD doesn’t really do full justice to Alton’s cinematography. There’s a lot of print damage, although luckily apart from this the picture quality is pretty good.

The Amazing Mr X is a movie that could very easily be overlooked, and to a great extent that’s been its fate. It’s a thoroughly charming and highly enjoyable movie with a nice mix of spookiness, suspense and romance. Highly recommended.

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