"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long."
A unique supernatural thriller, The Amazing Mr. X (1948)--also known as The Spiritualist--chronicles the antics of Alexis (Turhan Bey), a questionable spiritualist who has created an elaborate hoax based around conjuring spirits, mainly targeting wealthy grief-stricken widows haunted by their memories. Capitalizing on the desperation of those who have lost loved ones, he conducts dramatic, convincing seances for his clients, to satiate their desire to relive their pasts by contacting the dead.
Much of the film is shot in moonlight, illuminating churning waters of a turbulent ocean, and bringing to mind the torrent of emotions experienced by those seeking to reunite with their beloved who have passed.
Christine Faber is just such a character, who begins to hear her late husband's voice speaking to her from the depths of the waters one night. Disturbed but also intrigued, she makes a phone call to her new love interest and potential fiancé, Martin, with whom she has a date, and tells him that she will walk down the beach to meet him. Martin protests in worry about her safety, but she insists on carrying on with her seaside stroll, obsessed with the voice that calls to her. While walking down the beach, she becomes increasingly spooked at the voice, wild surf and the cackles of a bird in a tree behind her, tearing her dress and running straight into a tall dark handsome stranger, who is Alexis the mystic himself.
"I saw your husband dead and you moving into a new marriage...but I see I was wrong... sometimes I am. Goodnight."
Of course Christine is appalled that this mysterious Rhett Butler look-alike has pinpointed her innermost thoughts, and she follows him down the beach, already seduced by his apparent clairvoyance.
"WAIT! I don't understand how you know all of this..."
"I saw him dead, carrying flames..."
--and with that he hands her his business card.
"Alexis. Psychic consultant... Oh. I see you place me in the same category as fortune tellers, snake charmers and magicians."
He continues on, telling her things a stranger could not possibly know...things about Martin and his tiresome logic...things about her deceased husband Paul.
"I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again..."
As if on cue we hear Martin calling to Christine in the distance.
Everyone who has lost someone close to them can understand the urge to have one last conversation, to tie up unfinished business, the intense temptation to receive "signs" from those who have crossed over to the beyond, so we immediately identify with our protagonist, Christine. As the viewer expects, she ends up in the company of Alexis, conversing over a crystal ball. And so the real story begins to unfold.
"I deal with many different kinds of minds in my work...generally speaking there are three types of people who come to see me. The first, a fairly large group come to scoff, sometimes a few of them remain to prey. The second have childlike, prejudice minds, they long to believe they're tired and sad and need comforts. All this helps them. It creates an atmosphere, you see, a mood like music and they need to find a few moments of comfort that help them continue with their grey little lives and so I do not think it is childish, after all... do you?"
"And the third group?"
"The third group consists of those of us who honestly seek to explore the secrets of the outer world... I feel that you have come today to join that group."
The magical noir essence in this film is John Alton's expressionistic treatment of light. He manipulates the lens to play with black and white; figures become shadow and sometimes they glow, bathed in darkness. He heightens the already mirage-like effects of misty smoke, moonbeams and mirrors, to create a truly supernatural atmosphere. The most noteworthy scenes, seances and crystal ball readings, take place in Alexis's den, resembling a carnival fun house with its secret passageways, two-way mirrors and marvelous set decorations (including a large image of a "third eye" and a mechanical door that opens and closes automatically behind visitors.) Disembodied heads and hands during the seances, apparitions of menacing wedding dresses in Christine’s seaside mansion, and the relentless pounding of the ocean's waves all add to the phantasmal mood.
The most eerie and disturbing fact about The Amazing Mr. X is that our main character, Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) was originally to be played by Carole Landis, who tragically committed suicide before filming began. Landis had a role alongside Betty Grable and Elisha Cook Jr. in what some have claimed to be one of the first films of the noir genre, I Wake Up Screaming (1941).
Some other outstanding characters in the film that make it worth watching: Our token noir detective, Hoffman, who has a magician background himself with a knack for card tricks, and is particularly skeptical of Alexis; Christine’s younger sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell), who initially has the self-righteous behavior that recalls another insipid noir femme Veda (Mildred Pierce), yet she is ultimately quite insightful; our ghost, Christine's husband Paul (Richard Carlson); and Alexis's female "assistant" Emily (Virginia Gregg, who can be best remembered for her voice-over as Mrs. Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho.)
And so, my fellow noir aficionados: "... if you have the courage to and will to explore, I will help you. Let your mind be free and receptive--focus on the crystal ball!"