The Amazing Mr. X (1948) is pretty amazing itself. Sort of a cross between the Anthony Mann/John Alton noirs produced at Eagle-Lion in the late-1940s and the Val Lewton fantasy horrors from earlier in the decade, the film is a modest but extremely effective supernatural thriller and much-underrated. Though its original negative may well exist, the film itself has apparently fallen into public domain and has been released to DVD under several labels. This Wade Williams Collection release through Image is reportedly the best-looking version thus far: it sources a damaged but at times very sharp 35mm print, possibly nitrate.
Wealthy and attractive young widow Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) can't get over the loss of her husband in a fiery car crash some years before, despite now being engaged to attorney Martin Abbott (Richard Carlson) and close to her doting younger sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell). Drawn to the beach by a voice resembling her husband - and, later, Chopin's haunting Prelude for Piano, Op. 28 Nr. 4 in E minor, which her husband used to play - Christine meets Alexis (Turhan Bey), a "psychic consultant" whose uncanny observations gradually convince Christine that he can put her in touch with her late husband.
As Christine falls under Alexis's powers of persuasion, Martin and Janet become increasingly worried that Alexis may only be after her money, and hire a magician-turned-private detective (Harry B. Mendoza) to investigate. Soon, Janet herself falls under Alexis's spell, too, developing an obsessive crush on the mystic who, early in the film, is revealed as a charlatan. But there's more than meets the eye as contact with the Great Beyond might just be possible after all.
The Amazing Mr. X is a winner all the way. Its greatest asset is John Alton's superb cinematography. Though he'd win an Oscar for An American in Paris and shot such mainstream successes as The Teahouse of the August Moon and Elmer Gantry, Alton is best remembered today for his stunning noirs and their eye-popping use of light and shadow, photography that took the genre to its visual apex. Alton applies many of the same techniques here, and throughout the film adopts alternately evocative and disconcerting points-of-view (especially extreme low angles and, near the end, a few hand-held shots).
Alton's work includes a smattering of optical effects - some effective, some not. Even the good ones strain credibility, however, as even Houdini would have had a hard time pulling off some of the illusions Alexis uses in his gadget-filled house, which include an all-purpose video monitor reminiscent of the one Ming the Merciless used to spy on Flash Gordon.
The script is clever and admirably unpredictable. Though it primarily operates on the kind of sweeping, movie-real narrative momentum common to both noir and fantasy horror of the period, it's still surprisingly realistic in its depiction of two women who, for different reasons, become obsessed with the same man, and his psychological manipulation of them both is cunning and intelligent.
Much of this success rests on star Turhan Bey whose exotic appeal (Turkish father, Czech mother) and skill at subtle characterizations were frittered away at Universal, where Bey was largely wasted in films like The Mummy's Tomb and The Mad Ghoul. With one exception Bey retired a year after this was released, but years later turned up on a 1993 episode of SeaQuest DSV, and resumed acting for another half-decade or so. He's terrific in The Amazing Mr. X, engendering a wide range of emotions from the audience.
Indeed, the film's performances are uniformly excellent, and the picture's casting is superb. O'Donnell is very good as the naive younger sister; the actress was always excellent projecting a wide-eyed but also fragile and slightly eccentric innocence, all of which are on display here. Donald Curtis gives a superb, subtle performance in a key role, while the uncredited Mendoza, apparently a magician in real life, gives a naturalistic performance as the authentic-sounding detective savvy to the grifters' bag of tricks. It's a shame he appeared in so few films. Stolid Virginia Gregg has a small role as Christine's "Swedish" maid.
Video & Audio
This Image release of The Amazing Mr. X uses a 35mm print that has its share of splices and scratches, particularly during the first reel or so. At 3:29 there's even a burnt-out frame from some ill-fated screening. That said, the image is sharp and the contrast surprisingly good; given the film's age it's possible that this is a nitrate print. In any case, damage and all, most of the time it's actually sharper than, for example, most of the films in Warner Home Video's Val Lewton Collection. The mono audio, coming directly from the print, is likewise damaged and at times the film sounds like someone is just off-screen frying bacon. The DVD has no subtitle options or even a main menu. The disc goes straight into the movie though there is a chapter stop menu. There are no Extra Features, though Jim Arena has contributes a good insert essay.
Like Bey's spiritualist, The Amazing Mr. X is a hypnotic little noir, a minor but mesmerizing little B-picture that never loses steam over the course of its 78 taut minutes.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.