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The Spiritualist

The Spiritualist(1948)

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To the short list of memorable productions from the humble Eagle-Lion studio can be added this atmospheric and intelligent thriller from 1948. Sold as a horror film, The Amazing Mr. X is actually a romantic take on the spiritualist racket with a few similarities to the previous year's Nightmare Alley. Its strongest aspect is superb cinematography by the legendary John Alton, who makes the picture a remarkable showcase of expressive and tasteful lighting effects.

Synopsis: Socialite Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) is still obsessed with her dead husband Paul (Donald Curtis), even though he's been gone two years and handsome Martin Abbott (Richard Carlson) is now in love with her. Mentalist Alexis (Turhan Bey) convinces Christine that he can communicate with Paul's spirit, and despite Martin's objections, succeeds in winning over both Christine and her younger and more impressionable sister Janet Burke (Cathy O'Donnell. Is Alexis' "amazing" ability to conjure the dead authentic, or an elaborate hoax? And why is even Alexis shocked at the sudden manifestations of the ghostly Paul?

The Amazing Mr. X almost completely redeems the sub-genre of thrillers that use the hokey convention of the séance, a gathering of people that can communicate with the dead when guided by a 'sensitive' conduit to the spirit world. Seen mostly in comedic horror films, séances rarely work in films because they rely on a surrender of rational thought not encouraged by the literal imagery of motion pictures. We either see the ghosts or we don't, so they're either "real" or fakes. Quasi-supernatural thrillers were far out of favor in 1948, possibly due to Universal's tepid series of lame "Inner Sanctum" mysteries. The Amazing Mr. X practically has the field to itself.

Crane Wilbur's story soon reveals that Alexis is a charlatan, but adds layers of interest by giving us an inkling of how skilled magician's tricks could conjure complicated illusions. Alexis demonstrates a sensitivity for his 'victims' that makes him an unusually sympathetic anti-villain. He uses his considerable personal charm to overcome the sales resistance of his female clients, playing a kind of spiritual gigolo role with dotty matrons like Norma Varden. Alexis to some degree seduces the sisters Christine and Janet. Yet, even though he cooperates part way with a complicated murder plan, we don't see Alexis as beyond redemption.

The film benefits from excellent casting. Typically a scheming troublemaker in pictures like Orchestra Wives and Shock, Lynn Bari is both likeable and sensitive as the tormented Christine. Cathy O'Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives, They Live By Night) is perfect as the gentle younger sister charmed by the Svengali-like Alexis. Richard Carlson is attractive as the boyfried who gets in the way; his career was still going strong at this time.

Never a major star but always a notable personality, Turhan Bey is said to have received huge volumes of fan mail from admiring females. His arresting good looks and smooth voice usually restricted him to suave ethnic villain roles, as in several Mummy horror movies. The difference with The Amazing Mr. X is that the script respects all the characters and leaves them open to interpretation. Even the cynical detective played by Harry B. Mendoza has unexpected depth -- he used to be a professional magician and is always looking for the trick up the sleeve or the hidden button in the woodwork.

But John Alton's stunning camerawork is the grace note that puts The Amazing Mr. X over the top. Scenes are constructed of economical, expressive angles and every angle has a design concept; we're convinced that Alton essentially created the film's look on his own. The close-ups of the two actresses are beautifully rendered, making Lynn Bari every bit as visually sensual as Jennifer Jones. Every setting is distinctive, from Christine's cliff-top mansion to Alexis' tricked-out séance parlor. Alton probably handled the special effects as well, which involve a great many double exposures and visual gimmicks, like the framed picture that doubles as a rather fantastic television-like security screen. Alexis' various conjurer's tricks are probably too elaborate to be produced by the methods shown in the movie, but they work rather well anyway.

The script never loses its sense of humor, the characters are attractive and we worry about the impressionable, Janet and the vulnerable Christine when a new menace enters the story in the third act. Even though The Amazing Mr. X wraps up in a Production Code-endorsed finale (all miscreants are suitably punished) it reserves a sentimental flourish for its 'amazing' Alexis, a romantic villain who transcends his own villainy.

Image Entertainment's DVD of The Amazing Mr. X is far from a perfect presentation, but decent copies of this 1948 film are not easy to find. The sharp print has excellent contrast and would look fine if it were not beset by a few splices and constant minor scratches. Some of the scratches are intrusive, yet the film plays well and allows us to appreciate John Alton's work. In any event, the movie is so entertaining that the effect of the damage is minimized. Eagle-Lion eventually became United Artists but original elements for many of these independently-owned features have been destroyed or gone missing. This is one of the best releases from the Wade Williams collection.

Jim Arena provides insert liner notes with interesting information, such as the tragic fact that Carole Landis was slated to play Christine Faber but killed herself before filming began. There are no other extras.

For more information about The Amazing Mr. X, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Amazing Mr. X, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson