The Spiritualist (1948) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Spiritualist-posterAlso known as The Amazing Mr X, this beautifully shot and gently mocking  ‘Gaslight-meets-Rebecca‘ mystery melodrama also has a Noir style all its own. It also sports a charming performance from the late Turhan Bey who, in what appears to have been a bit of a craze in the late 40s, like Edward G. Robinson (in Night Has a Thousand Eyes) and Tyrone Power (Nightmare Alley), plays a man claiming to be able to read minds and see into the future. Of all of them Bey is certainly the most playful and surprising as his part in the story of a recently widowed woman haunted by the spirit of her dead husband (or is she?) evolves very nicely. The changes to his character are just some of several unexpected flourishes in a film that should be better known.

The following review (updated from a previous post) is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

‘Have you ever heard of Bernard Vorhaus? … Highly inventive, with a real love for film and as clever as a wagonload of monkeys” – David Lean, 1985

Born in New York, Vorhaus entered the American film industry in the mid 1920s, got his chance to direct several movies in Britain during the 30s before heading back to Hollywood to work at RKO and Republic. Vorhaus’ films at Republic were mainly programmers but they allowed 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.

“Do you see the Evil in these eyes?”

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.

The-Spiritualist

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 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 phony 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 which brings a fairy tale atmosphere that perfectly compliments the spooky atmosphere. There are also many amusing visual jokes (just look at the silhouette in the opening that looks like a gun but turns out to be anything but), while the ingenious plot plays pretty fair with the audience. 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. 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 witch-hunt 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.

The Spiritualist, made on a decent budget and with some good actors actors who really get in the spirit of this entertaining piece of hokum, remains a testament to the sadly curtailed directorial career of director Bernard Vorhaus and the work of cinematographer John Alton, the maestro of 40s and 50s Hollywood chiaroscuro.

DVD Availability: The film has recently been rescued from public domain hell in the US and been added to the library of MOD (Manufactured On Demand) titles from Sony and can be ordered through Amazon or directly from Warner Archive’s website. Having fallen into the public domain in America, The Spiritualist, usually under its misleading catchpenny Amazing Mr X title, is easily available and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube though the new Warner Bros. release is technically the most impressive in terms of picture quality and encoding.

The Spiritualist (1948)
Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Producer: Ben Stoloff
Screenplay: Ian McLellan Hunter, Muriel Bolton (story by Crane Wilbur)
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: Frank Durlauf
Music: Alexander Laszlo
Cast: Turhan Bey, Cathy O’Donnell, Richard Carlson, Lynn Bari, Donald Curtis, Virginia Gregg

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25 Responses to The Spiritualist (1948) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – I find Vorhaus’ background really interesting, and I like it that he seems to have a sense of humour. I think it takes a certain wittiness to hire a magician to play the detective – a fedora tip for that, methinks. Thanks also for your take on the film. An interesting look at the surge of interest in that sort of spiritualism at the time.

    • Thanks very much Margot – this is one of those films that seems to have earned true cult status and is probably not all that ‘forgotten’ and at least now it is easy to obtain on DVD in a decent version, which is crucual to really enjoy the amazing look fot he film.
      THE SPIRITUALIST

  2. Colin says:

    Cracking little movie Sergio. I have the old Image release which, if not quite as good as the MOD transfer apparently is, is perfectly acceptable. The atmosphere, and a lot of that’s down to Alton, is one of the real strengths of the film for me.
    I also like the theme – the fake spiritualist racket – that you correctly point out as being a popular one at the time. Aside from the various movies that took on the subject, there were the literary attacks on the craze by the likes of Carr and Rawson.

    • Cheers Colin – I have bought this film several times over the years on home video (and yes, also on LaserDisc, from Image in fact and probably using the master later put on the DVD). I had the good fortune of seeing it in the late 90s at the BFI as part of a John Alton retrospective in a fabulous, near-pristine 35mm print and have never been able to forget it – nothing quite like seeing it on the bog screen with a packed audience of cognoscenti. You are of course very correct in pointing pout the links to Carr and Rawson, which are certainly part of the reason for the appeal. I love magic and the fact that this films even exposes a few ‘trade secrets’ is really part of the charm for me. I once got to programme a season of Vorhaus movies at the NFT and came within a whisper of meeting the great man himself but he died just a couple of months before the seasons started (my initial version of this post from nearly 2 years ago was based on my programme notes in fact).

  3. THE AMAZING MR. X sounds like a Harry Stephen Keeler title . I’ll be on the lookout for this one!

  4. Yvette says:

    I LOVE Turhan Bey, Sergio. Hadn’t heard of this film and now I will simply have to look for it. I wish you wouldn’t keep coming up with films and books I can’t overlook! I’m booked for the whole of next year just playing catch-up! Can’t thank you enough for CONTRABAND though. I am simply in love with that film!

  5. Good choice, Sergio. Although I am not familiar with Bernard Vorhaus and his work, THE SPIRITUALIST or THE AMAZING MR.X sounds very interesting as much for the title as for being witty and self-deprecating humour by Turhan Bey. I appreciate films with self-deprecating humour especially if it’s pulled off well.

    • I hope you enjoy the film Prashant if you watch it on YouTube. Vorhaus remains a little-known filmmaker and some of his efforts remain lost of unavailable so I suspect this status won;t really change. He was talented but his career was cut short so it is hard to give a really full-rounded portrait of him as a director. He was definitely above-average.

  6. John says:

    Well, the second well done review of this movie I’ve read in as many months. I downloaded the whole thing from an internet service a few weeks ago and have to watch it very soon. Somehow it all seems vaguely familiar. I may have seen it when I was boy back in the 70s on “Creature Feature” or some other horror movie presentation show.

    Off topic, but have to let you know: I read THE CHILL last month and I thought it was amazing. Absolutely brilliant! The ending was worthy of a classic Agatha Christie novel. I actually laughed I was so taken aack by that incredbily well handled twist. Thanks for recommending it. Have to read more Lew Archer now.

    • Thanks John – I did do a sort of review of this in the early days of the blog but wanted to revisit it as I didn’t think I really did the film justice, focussing too much on the blighted careers of Vorhaus and Hunter – not sure I got it right here either but I didn’t want to goive too much of the plot away as it is half the fun after all – glad you enjoyed it.

      The Chill strikes again! I’m so pleased John – it’s the one I think works the best and I still remember, 30 years later, how the reversal at the end just blew my socks off.

  7. idawson says:

    So glad I stopped by today! I really like these types of films – but have never heard of this one. Will definitely keep an eye out for it :)

    • Thank you for stopping by – it’s easy to catch on YouTube or to download for free and I really thing its worthwhile – a little gem in fact. Love to know what you make of it.

  8. Great blog so many films i have still yet to watch,more and more seem to be available on dvd now
    sometimes i spend more watching the background then the actors,,the streets, cars and the shop windows.

    Ann

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