B&W, 1948, 77 mins. 54 secs.
Directed by Bernard Vorhaus
Starring Turhan Bey, Lynn Bari, Cathy O'Donnell, Richard Carlson, Donald Curtis, Virginia Gregg
The Film Detective (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Sony, Image Entertainment, VCI (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Long a mainstay of public domain companies since the VHS days when it set classic horror fans back on their heels, The Amazing Mr. X is one of the many independent little '40s gems that seemed to slip through the cracks without the backing of a major studio. Released by poverty row studio Eagle-Lion Films (who went on to short-lived glory releasing The Red Shoes in the U.S.), the film was initially shot as The Spiritualist and is best known today as a breathtaking showcase for cinematographer John Alton, who also excelled on a trio of film noir classics for director Anthony Mann for Eagle-Lion (T-Men, Raw Deal, and Reign of Terror). An intriguing fusion of mysticism, film noir, and supernatural thrills, the film has justifiably won many champions in film buff circles despite its refusal to clip into a clear genre. However, if you want to see a feast for the eyes with an eerie atmosphere akin to a classic horror movie, this is just the ticket.
Deeply haunted by her husband's death two years ago, Christine (Bari) hears a voice one night at her oceanside home and, while exploring, runs into a charismatic spiritualist, Alexis (Bey). Seemingly able to intuit Christine's torment and past, he becomes a vital part of her life when Christine and younger sister Janet (O'Donnell) continue to be besieged by uncanny disturbances, leading to a series of seance sessions. It would seem Alexis is a charlatan, but there are more surprises in store for Christine as she comes to believe her husband may really be haunting her.
To say any more about the plot would be impossible without ruining things, but this is a film that depends on mood at least as much as plot turns with Bey getting a fine showcase here as a character whose true nature and motives we don't really have a gasp on until very late in the proceedings. Alton and director Bernard Vorhaus (near the end of a long career including a slew of '30s programmers) do an effective job of using diffusion and striking shadow compositions to suggest the presence of the paranormal sprinkled through each scene, even in broad daylight. The supporting cast fares well, too, including a nice guy role for Richard Carlson (who became a reliable Universal player after this in films like Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space) and reliable character actor Virginia Gregg, who famously provided the voice of Mrs. Bates in Psycho and its first sequel.
Numerous labels have taken a crack at this one over the years since it first started turning up on VHS (most prominently from Sinister Cinema, who touted it to the sky back in the late '80s). The best-looking version for a long time was a 1999 DVD from Image Entertainment, which revealed the encoding limitations of the time but boasted better detail and contrast than anything before; others came around later from VCI and Alpha Video, and you can skip 'em. The first genuinely top-notch quality home video release came in 2011 from Sony as part of its MOD program through Amazon, which seems to be the only one around actually bearing the title The Spiritualist. In 2021, The Film Detective released the only bona fide special edition of the film to date on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring what's listed as a 4K scan from original 35mm camera elements (confirmed in the liner notes as Bey's very own personal print, given to Wade Williams). Thankfully the release delivers, even surpassing the Sony disc in terms of presentation with both video and audio looking exceptionally clean. Film grain and surface textures are all improved, and the night scenes are a couple of notches more legible now compared to the darker DVD. The film has been left as is, meaning the intentional diffusion and lens distortions have been left intact; those aren't issues with the transfer and exist on all other circulating versions as well. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English and Spanish subtitles) has no issues to report and sounds great. A new audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney (which also sports English and Spanish subtitles) is extremely thoroughly researched and informative, packing in lots of info about the major players with an understandably large portion devoted to Alton (including his "prickly" relationship with Hollywood studios) and Bey. In the Ballyoo Motion Pictures featurette "Mysteries Exposed: Inside the Cinematic World of Spiritualism" (20m27s), seance historian Lisa Morton and author C. Courtney Joyner offer further context about the film with a focus on the public fascination with the the paranormal at the time spurred by the heavy losses during World War II and a growing interest in spiritualism in general. An insert booklet features a very interesting essay by Don Stradley, "The Amazing Mr. Bey," which tries to parse out the mysterious and sometimes conflicting info about the star as well as his reputation around Hollywood before he inexplicably vanished from the scene for many years.
The Film Detective (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on October 28, 2021.