The Amazing Mr. X (1948, Bernard Vorhaus)

Around the halfway mark, The Amazing Mr. X gets a whole lot more interesting without ever being able to get much better. The film starts as a supernatural thriller, with widow Lynn Bari convinced her dead husband is calling to her, pissed off she’s getting close to accepting suitor Richard Carlson’s marriage proposal. Bari’s little sister, Cathy O’Donnell, is pressing her into accepting, while Bari secretly finds Carlson super-annoying. We know she finds him annoying because when she meets mentalist Turhan Bey on the beach, he can read her subconscious and reveal those grievances to her.

It’s a particular sequence with terrible composite shots—not just poorly matched as far as lighting. However, cinematographer John Alton’s achievement is basically never having a well-lighted scene or a well-composed angle on the composite shot. The angles on the backgrounds are wildly off, which might lend to an otherworldly, impressionist vibe, but director Vorhaus never goes for one. And then Bari’s terrible. Lots will change through Mr. X; the film’s got three major big twists, a couple big reveals, but the constant will always be Bari’s terrible performance. It’s not entirely her fault—Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter’s script is a combination of mysticism, deception, and light comedy; Vorhaus is particularly inept at the light comedy—but she’s still terrible. She’s never sympathetic, and pretty much everyone else, regardless of performance, manages to be sympathetic at one point or another.

If Bari were good, Mr. X. might be able to overcome its other failings like O’Donnell, Carlson, and Harry Mendoza. O’Donnell’s never good, but she’s enthusiastic; surprisingly, she was twenty-five in the film, she seems younger, not quite teenage but definitely not twenty-five. She’s particularly bad at the supernatural sequences. Actually, Bari’s better at them. O’Donnell plays them like there’s eventually going to be a punchline, which never arrives because it’s not actually light comedy no matter how much the script tries. Bari at least takes them seriously. But there’s some charm to O’Donnell’s failed approach, which gives Mr. X personality.

Especially after O’Donnell falls for Bey. She and Carlson have hired private investigator Mendoza (a real-life magician they presumably cast for his card tricks and not his screen presence; another mistake for the pile). His big idea to snoop on Bey is to get O’Donnell to go undercover for a reading. Except Bey’s able to see right through her subterfuge and instead seduces her.

That plot development—O’Donnell killing the investigation momentum—ought to stall out the picture but instead, Mr. X. does a deep dive into Bey. So the narrative focus goes from Bari to O’Donnell to Bey. It dollies back and widens the narrative in the third act, but it always keeps Bey in the proverbial shot. Partially because he’s the only one who knows everything going on once the third plot twist arrives, partially because he’s the only main actor giving a compelling performance. At the start, it seems like Bey’s going to be a stunt cast, an extended “exotic” cameo, with the focus being on Bari and Carlson… until the plot starts twisting and turning and Mr. X ceases to be predictable.

Even when there’s clarification and revelation, the film’s got another big twist waiting. It’s a neat plot. Shame the script’s bad; with a good script, Mr. X could probably get away with Vorhaus’s mostly inept direction, though it’d still need a better lead performance than Bari. Not even a great one, just a not always bad one.

Mr. X (which is a terrible title, especially since Bey’s name is “Alexis” and they never once lean on the “X”) is neat without ever being cute; a good idea victim of a too low budget, with a surprisingly excellent performance from Bey. He does a whole lot without any help from the director, the script, or his costars. Though O’Donnell’s mooning is believable enough, given the object of her affection.

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