Spiritualism & Spooks: The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

As a lifelong classic film fan who has seen more movies than she cares to remember, it’s easy to become a little jaded. But every year I manage to come across an old film that becomes a new favorite. In 2016 that film is the amazing, Amazing Mr. X (1948), a low-budget supernatural thriller also known as The Spiritualist in Britain.

This moody little gem was based on a script by Crane Wilbur (The Monster; 1925, House of Wax; 1953, The Bat; 1959, etc.) and directed by David Lean’s mentor Bernard Vorhaus. Vorhaus was blacklisted in Hollywood in 1951 following a HUAC hearing and today his name is largely forgotten due to the inaccessibility of his work but he made a series of well-received British thrillers including The Last Journey (1935) as well as some early John Wayne westerns for Republic Pictures; Three Faces West (1940) and Lady from Louisiana (1941).

The plot of The Amazing Mr. X progresses quickly after we’re introduced to the beautiful and melancholy Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a recent widow who lives a life of luxury in an oceanfront villa with her younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell). Christine has a new beau (Richard Carlson) but is haunted by memories of her deceased husband Paul (Donald Curtis), a classic pianist killed in an automobile accident who beckons to her from beyond the grave. One dark and misty evening Christine follows the sound of Paul’s voice to the beach where she encounters a handsome stranger named Alexis (Turhan Bey) and his intimidating pet raven. Alexis turns out to be a sophisticated spiritualist with a shady past who lures Christine, along with her sister Janet, to his spooky abode and persuades them to believe he can communicate with the dead. Desperate to talk to her dead husband one last time, Christine embraces Alexis and his esoteric ideas but this decision will have dire consequences.

Shot on location at the magnificent Villa de Leon overlooking the majestic Pacific Coast by master cinematographer John Alton (He Walked by Night; 1948, Father of the Bride; 1950, An American in Paris; 1951, Elmer Gantry; 1960), The Amazing Mr. X is truly something to behold. Along with Bernard Vorhaus’s direction, Alton’s camera conjures up a truly menacing atmosphere. Billowing curtains frame large windows and shadows seem to engulf everything in their path while ghostly encounters and suspicious seances recall some of the best horror films of the 1930s and 40s. The entire production is embedded with a sorrowful tone lending weight to the grieving widow’s predicament and much like The Uninvited (1944), it’s a movie in mourning. The most frightening moments are restrained, tempered by Christine’s grief and longing.

Alton was clearly influenced by Val Lewton productions such as I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943) and Curse of the Cat People (1944), but he employees a number of techniques from his own bag of tricks that bolster the look of the film. The abundant low-angle shots and fuzzy filters give the production a surrealistic edge that invokes the paranormal world inhabited by the characters. Adding to the film’s eerie ambiance is a sweeping score composed by Alexander Laszlo (Strange Impersonation; 1946, Night of the Blood Beast; 1958, Beast from Haunted Cave; 1959, The Atomic Submarine; 1959) incorporating fragments of Chopin’s Nocturnes with great effect.

The cast is well suited to their roles and I appreciated all their performances but the real star of the film is Turhan Bey. I was familiar with Bey from his work at Universal Studios in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Mad Ghoul (1943) as well as exotic adventure films such as Arabian Nights (1942) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) where he was often paired with the lovely Maria Montez. But his best work might just be in this B-Movie released by Eagle-Lion Films. Bey, the child of a Turkish father and Czechoslovakian mother, was nicknamed “The Turkish Delight” in Hollywood where he was widely known as a ladies man and dated a number of high-profile starlets including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. In The Amazing Mr. X, he’s given a lot to do and effortlessly rises to the occasion. He’s smart, frightening, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, tough as well as gentle, and utterly charming. It’s easy to see how he won the hearts of so many Hollywood beauties.

I’m not exactly sure how I’ve managed to overlook the film for so long but I suspect it’s due to a number of factors. First and foremost is that confusing title. Adding “Amazing” and the letter “X” to a movie was typical of Hollywood beginning in the 1920s well into the 1960s. Some examples of this include The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), The Amazing Mr. Forrest (1939), The Amazing Mr. Beecham (1949), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) as well as Madame X (1929), Doctor X (1932), The Return of Doctor X (1939), X the Unknown (1956) and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) just to list a few. If I came across a mention of The Amazing Mr. X in the past I probably confused it with another film and assumed I’d seen it before.

The film has also been curiously neglected by horror film historians and has typically been championed as an example of Film Noir, which I have some serious quibbles with. While The Amazing Mr. X does share some commonality with noirish thrillers such as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Nightmare Alley (1947) that dabble in spiritualism, I think it shares a lot more in common with classic horror films such as The Leopard Man (mentioned earlier) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), which suggest the uncanny but rely on the appalling depths of human cruelty to explain the horrors they eventually reveal.

If you’re looking for something fun to watch this Halloween you could do a lot worse than The Amazing Mr. X, which comes with my enthusiastic recommendation. The film has fallen into the public domain so you can easily find it streaming online and it’s also available on DVD from Image Entertainment and Sony Pictures. I suggest finding the highest-quality copy you can marshal because this gorgeous picture deserves to be seen in its best form so it can work its cinematic magic.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on TCM.com in October of 2016