Noir on Tuesday: THE SPIRITUALIST (1948)

The Spiritualist (1948), also known as The Amazing Mr X, has recently been rescued from public domain hell in the US and been added to the library of MOD (Manufactured On Demand) titles from the Warner Bros Archive and can be ordered through Amazon or directly from their website. It’s a beautifully shot, highly atmospheric mystery and a testament to the sadly curtailed directorial career of Bernard Vorhaus.

Vorhaus was a director of vigour and ingenuity during the 1930s, the poverty-stricken era of the British ‘Quota Quickie’, who had his career ruined by the Communist witchunts of the 1940s and 50s. Unable to find work in the film industry he  eventually was able to re-establish himself as a small scale property developer. Thankfully however, as in the case of the quota films made by the young Michael Powell, he lived long enough to see a renewed interest in his early British films and see new prints put into circulation of titles which in most cases had been out of general circulation for decades and most of which were thought lost.

Born in New York, Vorhaus entered the American film industry in the mid 1920s as a screenwriter, though his main effort, a re-write on the 1927 classic 7th Heaven, went uncredited. His first directorial effort was Sunlight a two-reeler starring ZaSu Pitts, but when this met with little success, he decided to go on holiday to Britain and ended up staying for the best part of the 1930s. When he first arrived, he couldn’t afford to hire a car so he got a motorbike instead and quickly learned how to ride it.

The bike soon broke, but he remained an enthusiast and when he made his feature film debut as both writer and director, Money for Speed, it turned out to be a tale of love and rivalry set in the world of motorcycle speedway riders. The film was also first credited feature for the young David Lean, who up to that time was editing newsreels for British Movietonews; and it was Lean who, 50 years later, was largely responsible for kick-starting the renewed interest in Vorhaus’ career. In 1985 Kevin Brownlow and Jo Wright were interviewing Lean, and asked him which directors had been an early influence on him. His immediate response was ‘Have you ever heard of Bernard Vorhaus?’, who he later described as ‘…highly inventive, with a real love for film and as clever as a wagonload of monkeys’. In 1992 Money for Speed was included in the BFI’s Missing Believed Lost, a list of 100 lost British feature films that it was hoped could somehow be recovered. (A print of it, dubbed into French, turned up and then another one, in English but this time with burned-in German subtitles, was eventually found.) The film also provided a very early role for Ida Lupino who was only fifteen years old at the time, and who also starred, opposite John Mills, in Vorhaus’ next film, The Ghost Camera, which was also edited by Lean. By then, Vorhaus had decided that the life of an independent filmmaker was not for him. He soon gained a contract working for Julius Hagen at Twickenham, where he would make the majority of his film before returning to America.

It was back in Hollywood that he would eventually direct his most assured movie - and thankfully the most easily available on DVD, albeit not always in very good condition – a beautifully shot and gently mocking  ‘Gaslight-meets-Rebecca‘ mystery melodrama, The Spiritualist (1948), a film that could easily have launched him onto bigger and better things. In 1937, after Julius Hagen’s company at Twickenham went bust, Vorhaus had accepted an offer to go back to America and work for Herbert Yates’ Republic Studios. In an unpublished interview with Denis Gifford, he recalled:

There was a period of considerable depression in the British film industry and actually I was owed quite a bit of money by an outfit – because I was supposed to get something in addition to what I was paid on the spot for the film, but the company was bust, and I decided again just to take a trip to America and Herbert Yates who was president of Republic Pictures saw a few of my British films and offered me a directing job.

Vorhaus’ first film at Republic, the fast-moving Lew Ayres ‘B’ drama King of the Newsboys, was a decent programmer and little else but he was soon offered a couple of projects which would prove much more profitable, allowing him to forge strong creative partnerships with screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter and cinematographer John Alton – their collaborations culminating in the production of what is probably their most polished and purely pleasurable Hollywood film together, The Spiritualist. Vorhaus gave Hunter his first job on a Bobby Breen vehicle entitled Fisherman’s Wharf. When Hunter died in 1991, Vorhaus, writing in The Independent newspaper, contributed an obituary in which he recalled how he first became aware of his work: ‘I had the privilege of giving Ian his first film assignment, released by RKO. I had read an original story of his and was struck by this undiscovered talent; then even more impressed with his screenplay results’. Subsequently, Hunter, like Vorhaus, was blacklisted for his left-wing affiliations. They worked on many other projects together, including The Courageous Dr. Christian, on which Vorhaus gave John Alton his first job in America. In a 1997 interview with John Baxter, Vorhaus recalled the beginning of his relationship with Alton:

To my amazement and delight, he was faster and more talented than any other cameraman I’d ever worked with, partly because he used so little lighting. In fact, when he did his first film for Metro, which was a prize winner, he used so little light that they secretly sent someone around after him with a light meter to check… He regarded shadow and darkness as just as important as light.

Vorhaus worked with Hunter and Alton on several projects before entering the army in 1942 and got the chance to work with them again only after the end of the war when he started making films for the short-lived mini-major Eagle-Lion. Created as a merger between PRC and Rank, Eagle-Lion, briefly, tried to beat the majors at their own game by making high budget features that didn’t rely on star power but on production values and a distinctive visual style instead. Best remembered today for such noir masterpieces as He Walked by Night, Raw Deal and T-Men, the company eventually folded in the late ’forties. In his autobiography, Saved from Oblivion (Scarecrow Press), Vorhaus recalled how he came to make The Spiritualist (aka The Amazing Mr X) in 1948:

Re-entering the industry was quite a struggle. I had decided not to accept an offer to return to Republic but to try to make better films. During my years in the armed forces, however, new directors had gained prominence. I was offered two films for Eagle-Lion … The studio was well equipped with an excellent sound department, by Leon Becker, and I was able to bring my favourite cameraman, John Alton. His work impressed the studio, and they engaged him for subsequent films. Most of the films had to be shot in three weeks, and there were the usual problems with the quality of the screenplays. Ben Stoloff, however, was a reasonable producer and I persuaded him for one film to let me get Ian Hunter for a rewrite. With only a week before the filming started, Ian, working day and night, succeeded in rewriting the entire script, creating excellent characterisations and comedy. Stoloff recognised his achievement by paying at least two weeks’ salary for the one week of day-and-night work. This film, called The Spiritualist … was the story of a charming but phoney spiritualist, played by Turhan Bey. He convinces the heroine that he can bring back the spirit of her apparently dead husband, and the hero hires a detective to expose the spiritualist. I had fun engaging a professional magician instead of an actor to play the detective, who could do magic tricks while he was talking to show how the spiritualist might deceive his patrons.

The Spiritualist is the best of Vorhaus’ Hollywood films, thanks to its witty script and Alton’s beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography. Just as good though is a wonderful self-deprecating performance by Turhan Bey, who shortly afterwards retired from acting for several decades, before returning in the ’90s in supporting roles on such American TV shows as Seaquest DSV and cult-favourite Babylon 5. Sadly the film proved to be Vorhaus’ last in Hollywood, before eventually going to New York to make So Young, So Bad and then moving to the Continent.

Having fallen into the public domain in America, The Spiritualist, usually under its misleading catchpenny Amazing Mr X title, is available on DVD and online through many sources and is also available to view on YouTube though the new Warner Bros. release is probably technically the best one currently available in terms of picture quality and encoding.

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2 Responses to Noir on Tuesday: THE SPIRITUALIST (1948)

  1. Roy says:

    Another great noir post. I just skimmed it, but it’s going to be breakfast reading in a few hours.

    Here are my fedora related posts-

    http://roymathur.wordpress.com/?s=fedora

    Thanks!

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