The Clairvoyant / The Evil Mind (1934/1935) ***
Maurice Elveyís The Clairvoyant (issued in America first under its original title, then in a severely mauled version called The Evil Mind) is another of those kinda-sorta-but-donít-tell-the-BBFC-okay? horror movies that trickled sporadically out of Great Britain during the 1930ís. Its studio, Gainsborough, was originally one of the Islesí major production companies, but was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gaumont British by 1934. Thatís worth keeping in mind because the year before The Clairvoyantís domestic release, Gaumont had won both historical distinction and official opprobrium by producing The Ghoul, the first (indeed very nearly the only) proper British competitor to the horror films coming over from America at the time. The Clairvoyant was nowhere near as bold as that movie in most respects, but it still did the one thing guaranteed to give the censors of its day a conniption fit: it dealt directly and explicitly with the supernatural, and it had the unbelievable gall to leave only the barest possibility of a rational explanation.
The clairvoyant of the title is a stage mentalist who calls himself the Great Maximus (Claude Rains, from Battle of the Worlds and The Wolf Man). Like most men in his business, he has no actual paranormal abilities, but merely a clever gimmick and a formidable memory capacity. While Maximus stands blindfolded on the stage, his wife and assistant, Rene (Fay Wray, of Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game), borrows ďpersonal objectsĒ from people in the audience and asks him to identify them. The trick is that the precise wording of Reneís questions to her husband serves as a code communicating to him what she has collected from her audience volunteers. ďCan you tell me what Iím holding?Ē might indicate, say, a cigarette case, while ďAnd what is this here?Ē might mean a bracelet or a pocket watch. The system has worked smoothly for some time, but it hits a snag when Maximus and Rene are to perform at the biggest and most prestigious venue theyíve yet played. Halfway through the show, Rene was supposed to go up to the theaterís mezzanine level, so that the spectators in the balconies could get in on the fun. She gets lost in the maze of backstage passageways, however, and the audience turns rowdy during the wait. Some of the spectators take to challenging Maximus aloud from the theater floor, facing him with the unpalatable choice between casting suspicion on himself by refusing to answer and risking direct exposure by going on with the show while he is unable to employ his carefully honed system of deception. Thatís when Maximus experiences something he never has before in his lifeó a genuine clairvoyant trance. Not only is he able to identify the object waved at him by one impatient punter as an unopened letter, he can even discern the documentís contents. Itís an urgent message regarding the manís wife, sent some two days ago from the hospital where she is under treatment for something chronic and potentially life-threatening; Maximus advises the spectator to hurry to the clinic at once.
Max, Rene, and Maxís devoted but somewhat meddlesome parents (Mary Clare, of The Night Has Eyes, and Ben Field, from The Secret of the Loch and the 1920 version of A Face at the Window) get to discussing the mentalistís curious experience on the train ride to the next stop on their tour. His father doesnít seem to put much stock in the whole thing, but his mother avers that her grandfather had the gift of second sight, and that it was nothing to trifle with. As for why a true psychic vision should have come to him then, of all times, Dad reminds Maximus of the introductory spiel for his act. Officially, he and his wife share a paranormal bond that works rather like a psychic radio, with Rene transmitting impressions of the objects she handles and Max receiving and interpreting them; maybe such a bond really did form between Maximus and somebody in the crowd that night. No sooner has the point been raised than Max notices a young woman (The Murder Partyís Jane Baxter) in the car with them, whom heís certain heís seen before somewhere. In point of fact, she was in the audience at last nightís performance. She must also be the one whose presence activated Maxís latent psychic powers, because he has another prophetic episode almost immediately after catching sight of her. This latest vision is a much more serious matter than the last, too, for what Maximus sees is the very train heís riding running off the rails and smashing itself to bits. Maximus seizes the overhead communication line, signaling the conductor to slam on the brakes. The ticket taker isnít impressed when Max explains to him what the fuss is about, and he becomes even less so when he spies the stencils on the troublesome passengerís luggage proclaiming him a mind reader. Maximus isnít kidding, though, and several of the other passengers donít think he is, either. Indeed, quite a little crowd forms beside the tracks when he and his family disembark, including the girl who evidently brings on Maxís premonitions. Her name is Christine Shawn, and sheís the daughter of Lord Southland (Athole Stewart), owner and editor-in-chief of the London Daily Sun. She is thus in a position to hand her father a major scoop when the exiles from the train reach the nearest station in approximate concert with news of a catastrophic accident, exactly like that which Maximus foresaw.
Word of Maxís prophecy spreads fast, and by the time he, Rene, and his parents are back in London, they can barely get into or out of their house for all the people thronging the doorstep, desperate to have their futures divined. Maximus isnít seeing any of them. So far as heís concerned, heís still a professional stage mentalistó itís just that he now has a little something extra enabling him to command a higher performance fee. Specifically, he figures he ought to be worth about £300 a week. Thatís a thirty-fold increase over what he was making before, but when agent James Bimeter (C. Daniel Warren, from Bluebeardís Ten Honeymoons) stops by with a contract offer from an entertainment impresario named Cobin, Maximus manages to finagle that much plus expenses. It doesnít take more than a week for Cobin to decide that heís been had (after all, Maximus on his own is just a garden-variety charlatan), but then an unexpected visit from Christine Shawn (who seems to have taken a liking to him during their encounter on the train) saves Maxís bacon. Bimeter is just about to hand the psychic his walking papers when the apartment building pageboy who shows Christine in asks Maximus which horse is going to win that weekendís big race, and Max realizes that he knows the answer. Of course, his prediction seems ridiculous (Autonychousís official odds have been laid at a hundred to one), but itís certainly sensational enough. And since Cobin and Christineís father alike are in one form or another of the sensation business, they can be counted upon not to scruple for long about exploiting it in their respective fashions. Maxís pick comes through in the most dramatic possible manner, and before he knows it, Lord Southland is offering him a job at the newspaper.
This is where things start to get tricky for Maximus. Naturally, being on the take from Southland means spending time with Christine, which in turn means more frequent clairvoyant episodes. Thatís good, insofar as it means keeping Maxís visibility high and his bank account flush. But itís also bad, in that Rene has become extremely jealous over the strange bond between her husband and the Shawn girl. Maximus is too wrapped up in his newfound stardom to notice how shaky things are getting on the home front, and it comes as a complete surprise to him when Rene decides to leave him over a misunderstanding concerning a party at the club to which Lord Southland belongs. Rene makes what turns out to be a fateful decision while her husband is right in the middle of giving his address to the club, and Max learns of the marital mutiny only when his mother telephones with the urgent bad news. The news gets worse a few minutes later, for Mom gets so worked up while racing Rene to the apartment building lobby that she has a fatal stroke or heart attack or something at the bottom of the stairs. Guilt-ridden, Rene agrees to stay with Max after all, but she insists that he see no more of Christine. Obviously, that would mean going back to being just another low-rent music-hall faker; the choice is by no means an easy one. Max thinks he has the answer handed to him, though, when he has an encounter with a derelict (Donald Calthrop, from The Man Who Changed His Mind and the lost British talkie version of The Bells) who tells him he got to be the way he is now by choosing a job over a woman. But then he goes to break the news to Christine, and has his most terrible vision yet: thereís going to be an accident in a tunnel being dug under the Thames, and hundreds of workmen are going to die in either the initial gas explosion or the resulting flood.
I opened this review by calling The Clairvoyant a ďkinda-sortaĒ horror movie. What I meant by that is that there are no monsters or villains, no violence or evil schemes, and that at its heart, this film is really just a rather soapy relationship drama. However, director Maurice Elvey handles the storyís supernatural overlay in a completely serious, completely unsentimental manner that gives The Clairvoyant a stronger charge of the uncanny than the great majority of its eraís unapologetic fright flicks. When Maximus goes into his clairvoyant trances, itís unnerving and weird, exactly as it would be if you saw the same thing happening in real lifeó probably because everything else in the movie is treated as if it were real life. Claude Rains also deserves a lot of the credit for making those scenes work, switching on an intensity that he doesnít go anywhere near during the rest of the film. Rains portrays Maximus in his day-to-day existence as affable and well-meaning, but also short-sighted and more than a little selfish; heís the kind of guy who, while intending no harm to anybody, often manages to be a cad completely by accident, and without even realizing that heís doing it. Heís not at all the sort youíd expect to wield inexplicable powers, so seeing him do just that becomes much more alarming than it would have been had Rains played the part more like, say, his turn as Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man. Major congratulations are also in order for Fay Wray. Supposedly, she had gone to England expressly to escape from the typecasting that had dogged her in Hollywood for the past two years or so. Obviously playing the female lead in The Clairvoyant wasnít quite the same thing as putting horror behind her, but this movie does represent a major departure in the sense that it called upon Wray to act. Her thespian abilities were all too often allowed to lie fallow in her early-30ís scream-queen roles, and itís a pleasure to see her in a part with some substance to it. Wray shows an unusual sort of chemistry not only with Rains, but with Mary Clare and Jane Baxter as well, and she seems unafraid of delving into her own characterís flaws. Between Elveyís capable direction and the very impressive performances from the two leads, itís rather a shame that The Clairvoyant should fritter away its climax in a courtroom, that ultimate venue for cinematic boredom, and that it should shy away in the end from what becomes its central thematic issue. As the stakes for Maxís personal life rise, and the content of his visions becomes increasingly focused on the lives of other people, he must determine first whether his extraordinary powers impose upon him a corresponding extraordinary responsibility, and secondly whether he can ever be justified in putting his and Reneís happiness before that responsibility, should he conclude that one exists. This isnít just subtext weíre talking about, either; the subject comes up explicitly on three separate occasions. But having raised the question, the movie never seriously attempts to answer it. Max does indeed reach a decision, but we are never made privy to how he makes it or why. Itís a glaring and disappointing fumble in a film that had made commendably few up until then.