Far too many times in this space have I praised the classics because – on a mostly fundamental level – those filmmakers had to do more with less in ways that only get mirrored these days in independent features. For example, when you needed to use a special effect, well you practically had to invent the thing as big budget Science Fiction and Fantasy hadn’t quite taken hold in our collective consciousness in the 1940’s; and even after those genres did gain a foothold in the 50’s, many studios still relegated them to be made as black-and-white features, not giving them the industry clout associated with color pictures. Stories needed to be crisper, performances needed to be bigger, and all of this still had to be accomplished on whatever the budget allowed, forcing these innovators to test the limits of their own invention.
Into this mix of cinematic reality, I find a little ‘something something’ like The Amazing Mr. X (1948). During its original run, it was put out under the name of The Spiritualist, but some negative feedback to the studio from practicing mediums of the era forced the powers that be to change its name. And – dare I say? – it’s a bit of a confusing picture but not in the obvious way. Oh, the story makes sense – has a beginning, middle, and end with all of the necessary plot twists and turns along the way – and yet it still defies a conventional label. Is it a drama? Is it a mystery? Is it a Horror film or Fantasy? Honestly, it has a bit of most – with even a few clever comic bits thrown in for good measure – but never fits easily under any single heading.
In all honestly, it’s not quite the kind of feature I typically cover on SciFiHistory.Net. But the experience does deserve a mention, and I’m happy to expand just a bit after the obligatory break.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “An atmospheric masterpiece, The Amazing Mr. X stars Turhan Bey as Alexis, a mystery man who claims to communicate with spirits. Appearing on the beach one night, Alexis easily charms a depressed widow and her sister (Lynn Bari and Cathy O’Donnell). The sly Alexis makes a living by separating gullible people from their money, but before this tale is over he will learn that the living are far more dangerous than the dead.”
Though at first blush, The Amazing Mr. X resembles a Fantasy, it’s honestly much more a caper picture.
Alexis (played by Turhan Bey) is the quintessential conman who seeks to gain his own personal fortune and fame from the victims he can extort. Though he’s not shown to have any real nefarious intent in the kinda/sorta seduction of Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), viewers do learn that he’s in it for whatever he can gain to put himself and his partner, Emily (Virginia Gregg), ahead in the game. As can happen in any good con, complications aplenty ensue; and these take the shape of Christine’s sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) who becomes smitten with the spiritualist as well as Christine’s latest suitor Martin (Richard Carlson). In fact, Alexis’s arrival here throws a monkey wrench into Martin’s hope to marry the love of his life, giving this story (from Crane Wilbur, Muriel Roy Bolton, and Ian McLellan Hunter) plenty of legs to stand all on its own.
Still, there’s a late, breaking development to the plot that even a charlatan like Alexis couldn’t predict: as fate (or a good con) would have it, Christine’s former husband – Paul (Donald Curtis) – isn’t so dearly departed as he would have you believe. Before you know it, Alexis finds himself being manipulated by a master manipulator, and he’s forced to go along or else risk exposure, criminal conviction, or maybe even his own demise … unless he can outmaneuver the man and maybe even right a few wrongs he committed along the way.
It’s a deception that works principally because that’s what’s getting exposed in this affair. Though Alexis has some dark intentions, it’s clear that he approaches his day job with a sense of whimsy. He doesn’t get bogged down with the lasting impact of bilking those he can, but the script never quite depicts him as purely evil, either. The truth to his character very well could be that he only takes enough to get by himself and leaves his victims with plenty, too. Of course, it’s still criminal, but it’s clear in the last reel that beating somewhere underneath the conman is a heart of gold. He never wanted to destroy individuals … just delude them.
Perhaps there’s a thin strain of nobility in that.
The Amazing Mr. X (1948) is produced by Ben Stoloff Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled via The Film Detective. As for the technical specifications? Sourced from a print of the film from actor Bey’s personal collection, the sights and sounds all look very good, though I suspect the age of the original print did the process no favors. In many cases, the whites are a bit murky, but the shadows do make up for some of the lack of clarity. Honestly, I’m no ‘technical expert’ in most regards, but I’d still only rate this as a good restoration as it’s just not up to the level I’ve seen with other films of the era. (Again, some of this may be owed to an aged source print. Such is the nature of restoration as I’ve learned.) Lastly, there are a few special features worthy of note: this disc includes a good commentary from film scholar Jason Ney (I found it a bit too heavy on trivia and would’ve liked to know a bit more about this particular film, but this happens a lot as detail on older productions can be elusive). There’s also a studio-produced documentary on spiritualism which I found honestly more interesting than the commentary. (What can I say?) Lastly, the booklet insert contains an essay exploring Bey’s career (in Hollywood and beyond) which is very complimentary to the man I knew little about. A nice collection.
Recommended. Though I found The Amazing Mr. X a bit hard to classify – it’s not quite Horror, not quite Drama, not quite Film-Noir – it exists in the happy junction of many genres. Performances are good – Bey works surprisingly well as the conman who eventually succumbs to the heart of gold he never knew he had; Bari and O’Donnell’s work as sister feels authentic though occasionally a bit stilted toward stereotypes of the era; and Carlson fills the shoes of the dutiful suitor quite nicely. Look for a great cameo-style role for Harry Mendoza as Detective Hoffman, the magician turned lawman who steals his few scenes easily.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at The Film Detective provided me with a Blu-ray of The Amazing Mr. X by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.