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‘The Amazing Mr. X’ has a great story and some unexpectedly terrific special effects

‘The Amazing Mr. X’ has a great story and some unexpectedly terrific special effects

the-amazing.mr.x_posterThe Amazing Mr. X (a.k.a. The Spiritualist)

Written by Crane Wilbur and Muriel Roy Bolton

Directed by Bernard Vorhaus

USA, 1948

Christine (Lynn Bari), widowed for two years, steps out one night on her bedroom balcony overlooking the nearby rocky cliffs and ocean. Something compels her towards the violent waters,, a voice, that of her late husband Paul. Her younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) gently reminds Christine that more than enough time has elapsed for her to rebuild her life, especially with Martin (Richard Carlson), affable and loving, trying to win her heart. A few nights later, Christine even makes the trek down to the beach where a raspy voice unmistakably calls out her name. To her surprise, a lone gentleman named Alexis (Turhan Bey) is lurking the premises and introduces himself as a spiritualist interested in her case. Tempted by the idea of contacting her dead husband, their meeting begins a series of dramatic events and revelations that affect Christine, Janet, Martin, Alexis and a surprise character.

Bernard Vorhaus’ The Amazing Mr. X is, first and foremost, a very entertaining romp that dabbles in some noir themes like betrayal and greed, but also adds a spectacular dose of pseudo science-fiction horror. The film is never outright frightening, yet carries a solid level of creepiness, especially in the first half. Even when it is revealed that Alexis is nothing more than a money-sucking charlatan, the filmmakers do not let up on the eerie imagery he conjures up during his séances with Christine and Janet, both of whom are eventually duped into the believing the authenticity of their communications with Paul’s spirit. A pervasive sense of fun gives the movie a really good, brisk pace.

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Kudos to the crew for pulling off several legitimately skin-crawling visuals that could easily pass for fantastic apparitions. Similar to a horror film of the same era, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), composite images and intelligently designed lighting techniques are employed to render moving images that are creepy for their believability, a crucial element when considering that Alexis is exposed as a fraud fairly early on. Even though the audience knows Alexis is incapable of summoning real specters, Christine and Janet are so utterly enthralled by the showman’s clever trickery, it is difficult not to at least admire the visual effects on display. Some shots are on par with the best special effects of the era, such as when Christine is visited in her bedroom by what she believes to be Paul’s ghost.

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Thankfully, The Amazing Mr. X is not content to only showcase eye candy. Driving the picture is the story of how gullibility is a weakness the vermin of society prey on. In this case, Christine and Janet’s gullibility is not an excuse for the effects crew to show off their accomplishments, but partially a result of their precarious emotional and psychological states. Christine’s ability to let go of the past is comparatively weak. Paul meant everything to her and his grisly demise in a fiery car impacted her more than anticipated. The character is neither stupid nor simple-minded; she just keeps holding on to the memory of her first husband so tightly it results in her wanting to believe in any chance to reconvene with him. Janet is currently married, but hers is not a blissful companionship. She spends much of her time with Christine, living under the same roof. When her older sister starts babbling about Paul wanting to connect and Alexis’ wondrous qualities as a medium, Janet ventures a séance with skepticism. She is immediately smitten by the pseudo-magician’s gentlemanly charm and power. Before anyone knows it, Janet falls for Alexis, a critical development in one individual’s get-rich-quick scheme. The ladies’ emotional volatility is at the core of the ease with which they accept Alexis’ theatrics. The Amazing Mr. X harps on their predicament in such a way that invites the viewer to feel a mixture of empathy and sorrow for both siblings.

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Where the film feels somewhat discombobulated is in the level of importance Vorhaus awards each leading lady at specific times during the story. The first 30 minutes or so unmistakably suggests that that Christine, not Janet, will be the audience’s eyes and ears, after which the film awards equal screen time to both. By the finale, the most important plot twists and emotional beats, save one, concern Janet. The Janet-Alexis angle overtakes Christine’s obsession with Paul in importance. It makes for an odd flow to the story, as if halfway through the writing process, the screenwriters realized they had a great second story on their hands and tried to cram as much of it as possible.

amazingmrSome standout performances deserve mention, namely Turhan Bey and Cathy O’Donnell. Bey is appropriately charming and alluring as a con man pretending to deal with extremely sensitive individuals. He makes his appearances professional with a requisite dose of theatricality. Playing off volatile emotions is among the tricks he must do best, demonstrating tenderness and attention to what ails his unsuspecting customers. His is a perfectly calibrated performance. O’Donnell,  from films such as They Live by Night and Side Street, is equally deserving of praise. The character’s youth is felt through the innocent, impressed tone in which she delivers many of her lines (it helps that the actress was only 24 and looked even younger). Her mannerisms suggest someone less experienced than her elder sister all the while making her extremely likeable. O’Donnell is completely convincing as a reasonably young adult, a phase when the cynic outlook that accompanies experience has not yet fully corrupted youth’s innocence.

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The Amazing Mr. X is a potluck of genres and styles that come together under Bernard Vorhaus’ direction to produce a surprisingly entertaining experience. The film is more of a lark than a deadly serious drama but still has a beating heart to anchor the experience. For anyone who enjoys ghost tales, magic, and noir, Vorhaus’s picture offers a uniquely interesting blend of all three.

— Edgar Chaput