The Amazing Mr. X/The Spiritualist (1948) ***
And here I thought I was going to be watching one of those old diabolical genius movies. Mind you, I didn’t know about the alternate title, The Spiritualist, before I dropped The Amazing Mr. X in the DVD player. If I had, I would probably have had a better idea of what was coming. What we have here is a rather surprising throwback to the sham psychic movies of the 1920’s, but which circumvents the most annoying feature of those films by tipping its hand early about the ghosts being nothing more than a con game. Remarkable how much more enjoyable the formula becomes when the audience isn’t being conned right along with the characters…
It’s been two years since Christine Faber (Lynn Bari, from Earthbound and Trauma) lost her husband, Paul (Donald Curtis, of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea) in a fiery car crash. She still hasn’t quite recovered from the loss, and when we meet her, she’s standing on the balcony of the seaside mansion where they lived together, listening to surf noises that sound eerily like a man whispering her name. Just then, her sister, Janet Burke (Cathy O’Donnell, from the notorious Terror in the Haunted House), walks in to pester her about getting ready for her date later that night. Christine is seeing a lawyer by the name of Martin Abbott (The Power’s Richard Carlson, who played Christine’s part in some very similar situations in Tormented), and the two of them are supposed to get together for dinner later on; Janet suggests that Martin may even be planning to propose marriage to her sister. Abbott is running late, though (a client with a complicated case walked into his office right before what was supposed to be quitting time), and in order to pass the time, Christine decides to walk to his house along the beach rather than sit around waiting to be picked up.
That’s where the trouble starts. For one thing, Christine continues to be vexed by the sensation that someone is calling her name from the surf, and now that she’s right down on the shore, she realizes that the voice she thinks she hears is Paul’s. But of greater importance, she has an unexpected meeting with a man who calls himself Alexis (Turhan Bey, from The Mad Ghoul and The Mummy’s Tomb), and who claims to be a psychic. Lord knows he’s conversant enough with Christine’s background despite never having spoken to her before. He knows about Paul’s death— even down to such details as the burning car— he knows that she’s dating Martin Abbott, and he even knows all the little things about Martin that Christine finds annoying. Nevertheless, Alexis counsels Christine to marry Abbott: “Even a free spirit eventually has to come inside, put on her shoes, and start going to dinner parties.” Half of Christine wants to get away from Alexis as quickly as possible, but the rest of her thinks maybe he might be able to help her dispel the feeling she’s been having lately that Paul is haunting her. After all, he does bill himself as a psychic. She accepts the man’s business card and then goes on to meet Martin, who does indeed present her with an engagement ring.
In the wee hours of the following morning, Christine has what is either a terrible nightmare or a harrowing paranormal experience. The French doors leading to her balcony blow open, the wind knocks all of her Martin-related mementos from their places on the end table, and the voice from the surf starts calling loudly enough to wake Christine up— or at least she thinks she’s awake at the time. Christine notices that her swank new engagement ring has been replaced by the wedding band Paul gave her all those years ago, and Paul’s photo is lying on the floor beside the fallen frame that contained a picture of Martin when it was swept over by the wind. Finally, she begins hearing the faint sound of a piano playing a piece that was a particular favorite of Paul’s, and her wedding dress suddenly springs out of the closet and attacks her like an angry ghost. Needless to say, everything is back to normal when Janet comes in response to Christine’s screaming and turns on the light. Even so, Christine isn’t convinced that it was all just a vivid nightmare.
The following afternoon, she goes to see Alexis at his home (which is tricked out in true shyster medium style), beginning what turns into a routine which Janet and Martin find increasingly alarming. Christine spends enough time obsessing over Paul’s memory as it is— to have her hanging out with a spiritualist, trying to get in touch with him across the dimensions, is on an altogether higher plane of Bad News. Martin and Janet go to see a private detective named Hoffmann (Harry B. Mendoza), who specializes in saving the credulous from “paranormal” con-jobs. In fact, Hoffmann used to be a stage magician himself, and is well acquainted with the tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, Hoffmann is so well known as a debunker that Alexis would surely be onto him the moment they laid eyes on each other, so something a bit more subtle than a frontal assault will be required if Janet and Martin are going to extricate Christine from the medium’s clutches. Janet nominates herself as the public face of the anti-Alexis operation, reasoning that since she and the psychic have never met, there’s no way he’ll suspect anything when she pays him a visit to snoop around under the pretense of having her fortune told. Alexis is wilier than anyone has realized, however. He has an assistant named Emily (Virginia Gregg, who supplied the voice of Mrs. Bates in Psycho, and who was edited into American TV prints of The Kiss of the Vampire), and he long ago arranged to place her as a maid in the Faber household— evidently Alexis has been scheming to snare Christine for quite some time. With Emily feeding him information about Christine’s life, habits, and circumstances, he already knows about Janet, and is able to charm his way right through her when she arrives on his doorstep. Indeed, by the time Alexis is through, Janet not only believes in his psychic powers but has fallen in love with him to boot! But there’s one thing nobody— not even Alexis— knows as yet, which will make the psychic’s scam look like small potatoes indeed when it comes to light. Paul faked his death two years ago, and he’s cooking up a caper that would do a William Castle villain proud.
Like a lot of the movies that flirted with traditional horror themes in the late 1940’s, The Amazing Mr. X is a tough film to pigeonhole. Christine’s nightmare at the end of the first act is scarier than anything that was presented by a forthright horror picture during that decade, yet we see almost immediately afterward that scaring the audience is not really what this movie is going to be about. Nor can you call The Amazing Mr. X a mystery, because it is obvious nearly from the beginning who the villain is, what he’s after, and how he means to get it. What’s more, although the big reveal concerning Paul is dealt with in the manner of an unexpected twist ending, there’s still more than half an hour left on the clock when it comes— again a far cry from the mystery story’s modus operandi. The film is almost a genre unto itself, the kind of thing that often surfaces during transitional periods in which old forms and conventions are dying out, but it is not yet evident just what’s going to replace them. Considering how well it works, it’s rather a shame that The Amazing Mr. X didn’t give rise to its own set of copycat thrillers, but on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine this combination of seemingly mismatched elements coming together so harmoniously a second time.
And make no mistake, the irregular mix goes down smooth indeed here. There’s something peculiarly satisfying about being invited behind the scenes of one of those phony ghost capers that I detest so much when they’re sprung on me out of nowhere in the concluding scenes of movies like The Mysterious Doctor or The Beast with Five Fingers, and for once, the mechanics of the scam don’t put too big a strain on credulity. (It does help that there are really two scams at work, and that the elements which don’t fit neatly into one can be explained by the other.) I like the way it changes the dynamic of the story when we discover that there’s another bad guy at work who is much more insidiously evil than the one we’ve been gearing up to hate for the first half of the picture, and Turhan Bey does a very good job of being a sleazy creep while remaining obviously much less despicable than Donald Curtis’s Paul. The weak links are Richard Carlson, who is as drab and forgettable here as he ever was in a 50’s monster movie, and Cathy O’Donnell as Janet. O’Donnell had her work cut out for her anyway, in that screenwriters Muriel Rose Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter can’t seem to make up their minds whether Janet is 21 or fourteen, and she simply isn’t up to the challenge of resolving the part’s contradictions. Even so, there’s enough to appreciate in The Amazing Mr. X to reward a reasonably forgiving viewer. Hell, the nightmare scene with the animate wedding dress is enough to justify the movie’s existence all by itself.