When Horror and Film Noir collide!
Historically, it’s always thought that after living a time of great splendor in America during the first decade of sound, the horror genre disappeared in the 40s, the years of World War II, to cede its place to the propaganda of war films, the paranoia of spy films, and the cynicism of Film Noir. Horror is supposed to be dormant, only to be resurrected in the 50s with Atom era horrors and the films of Hammer Studio.
However, an in depth overview of the decade will prove that horror didn’t die in the 40s, it just went under the radar, evolving into a subtler, more elegant and realistic variety, greatly influenced by the remarkable thrillers of those years. True, if one only sees the cheap B-Movies done by the big studios in those years (such as Universal’s sequels to ““), one could conclude that horror was getting childish and predictable, but there were other B-movies that showcased a sophisticated style of horror that had nothing to do with what’s commonly thought about the decade. Bernard Vorhaus‘ “The Amazing Mr. X” is a good example of that.
“The Amazing Mr. X” is the story of Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a young rich woman who one night, two years after her husband’s death, she hears a strange sound coming from the beach. Christine thinks it’s his late husband calling her from beyond the grave. In order to find an explanation to this, she goes to a spiritualist, a man called Alexis (Turhan Bey), who claims to be a master of the esoteric. Fascinated by the fact that Alexis seems to know everything about her, Christine begins to visit him regularly, and brings her sister Janet Burke (Cathy O’Donnell) with her. However, Alexis is actually a phony spiritualist, extremely skilled in the art of deception and illusions, only interested in using Christine’s memories of her deceased husband as a way to get a regular income. Janet suspects about Alexis, and along detective Hoffman (Harry B. Mendoza), tries to uncover Alexis as a fake, without good results. Nevertheless, Alexis discovers something he thought impossible: Christine’s husband Paul (Donald Curtis) has really come for him.
Based on a story by the prolific Crane Wilbur (whom also penned 1953′s ““), “The Amazing Mr. X” is a clever mix of Film Noir and horror written by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter. Filled with a great deal of intrigue and mystery, the screenplay is truly a very intelligent piece, done with great care for the plot and quite a good amount of character development. It is this last thing what really sets apart “The Amazing Mr. X” from other thrillers of its time, as almost every main character is fleshed out in a very complete and realistic manner. From Janet’s mix of naiveté and youthful courage to Hoffman’s own skill as a illusionist, every character has small details like those that make them more than the cardboard stereotypes they could had been. Mr. X himself, the spiritualist Alexis, is quite a complex figure in the film, with his purposes hidden deeply inside his persona, and his true emotions hidden even deeper. While at times a bit too far fetched for its own sake, the plot’s mystery remains intriguing and captivating until the very end.
The subtlety of the film’s screenplay is respected by British director Bernard Vorhaus, who brings the story to life with a lot of class and sophistication, making an effective supernatural thriller with nods to film noir (in a similar style to the one of the horror films produced by Val Lewton for RKO) that flows smoothly despite its somewhat convoluted plot. However, the key factor to the film’s success is without a doubt the wonderful work of cinematographer John Alton, who gives “The Amazing Mr. X” an extremely atmospheric style that enhances the mystery surrounding Paul’s ghostly apparition. Elegant, stylish, and filled with haunting images of great beauty, John Alton‘s work makes the film look a thousand times better than movies with bigger production values, and is definitely the highlight of the film (Alton would cite “The Amazing Mr. X” prominently in his book about cinematography). While it is true that the low production values get notorious at times, it’s remarkable what director Vorhaus managed to achieve with what he had in this independent production.
Turhan Bey, one of the most interesting actors of the 40s, delivers in “The Amazing Mr. X” one of the best performances in his career. As written above, his character is greatly detailed and very well developed, something that Bey uses to his advantage in order to make of Alexis an unforgettable character. Suave, charming and always elegant, Alexis is an enigma, and Bey truly plays on the mystery side of his character with great skill. As Mrs. Faber, Lynn Bari isn’t that lucky, as her performance is average at best, and she’s easily overshadowed by Cathy O’Donnell, who delivers a terrific performance as her sister Janet, making of “The Amazing Mr. X” another proof that she could have had a great career if she had not been in the middle of a feud between Samuel Goldwyn and William Wyler (her brother-in-law). As Mrs. Faber’s new boyfriend Martin, Richard Carlson is quite mediocre, while magician Harry B. Mendoza delivers a really great performance as detective Hoffman. Finally, Donald Curtis delivers quite a powerful performance as Christine’s late husband Paul.
Unfortunately, not everything is amazing in “The Amazing Mr. X”, as despite the cast and crew’s efforts, the film has some flaws that downplay the film’s assets a bit. Probably the film’s greatest problem is in the script, which even when it’s indeed a great piece of work, it rests on a very far fetched premise, and at times its convoluted plot falls into holes that are a tad difficult to explain. True, the screenplay has the fortune of having great characters, something that does help in the film’s enjoyment, but at times the story gets too slow for its own sake. As written above, Lynn Bari and Richard Carlson aren’t exactly in their best form in the film, making it difficult to care for her characters, to the point that’s even difficult to understand why should Janet care about them. Finally, the low production values are notorious at times, but as written above, the stylish and inventive cinematography by John Alton (which certainly is what takes the film to a higher level) more than makes up for such minor details.
“The Amazing Mr. X” is certainly an oddity, as it’s a quirky thriller, hybrid of horror and film noir, that without any pretension and despite all its flaws, manages to deliver far more entertainment than most films. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, and one could say it owes quite a lot to films such as Hitchcock‘s ““, Allen‘s “ ” and Val Lewton‘s films at RKO; nevertheless, “The Amazing Mr. X” is against all odds, a very interesting film that one should really check out. Unfortunately, its public domain status has resulted in copies where Alton‘s work is hard to appreciate, but still, Vorhaus‘ horror-noir is a textbook in the art of cinematography.