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The Spiritualist, Bernard Vorhaus, and John Alton

Turhan Bey in The Spiritualist

Finally available in a decent copy, Bernard Vorhaus’s bizarre and unpredictable noir/mystery The Spiritualist, also known under the much more prosaic title The Amazing Mr. X (which has nothing to do with the film at all), has apparently been in the Public Domain for many years, and many inferior copies of the film have appeared as streaming video downloads, cheap DVDs, and torrent downloads. But none of these versions capture the depth and luminous intensity of John Alton’s cinematography, enhanced by Vorhaus’s dream-like direction.

Now, finally, Warner Archive is putting out a version mastered from the original 35mm elements, and the result is extraordinary. The film itself is transformed into a dark, smooth vision, like something out of Jean Cocteau, and with all the imperfections of the cheaper dupes of the film removed, with emerges is absolutely extraordinary.

Here’s Warner Archives’ thumbnail description of the plot:

“Turhan Bey plays the mysterious spiritualist who convinces a beautiful widow (Lynn Bari, Orchestra Wives) and her young sister (Cathy O’Donnell, They Live By Night), that her dead husband is trying to contact her from beyond the grave. Richly photographed by famed cinematographer John Alton (Border Incident and The Big Combo), the dark, smoky interiors and fog-swept beaches give this [film] a gothic feel [ . . .] with stylish direction by Bernard Vorhaus (Bury Me Dead); sadly, this was one of his last films in the U.S. before being blacklisted.  This is the first and only DVD release of this film mastered from original 35mm elements.”

There were many great cinematographers at work in the 1940s, including Gregg Toland, Nicholas Musuraca and many others, but John Alton’s work is unique and immediately identifiable; he splashes light across the screen in bold streaks, and leaves large sections of the image in darkness for atmospheric effect. A renegade, Alton shot most of his films for minor studios on minimal budgets, where the bold simplicity he prized was also a valuable asset for producers.

Most of the action takes place in an enormous mansion, and Alton’s deep focus cinematography makes the most of the set, as well as some spellbinding exterior photography which is every bit as atmospheric and romantic as Henri Alekan’s work on Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast, which this film constantly reminded me of throughout its 79 minute running time.

Seeing the film as it was meant to be seen is a revelation; proof, once again, that film is an inherently fragile medium, and that the only way to ensure that the films of the past remain with us in the present is through careful, continual preservation of their original camera negatives, as happily is the case here. The Spiritualist is far from a masterpiece, but seen with its original gloss intact, Alton and Vorhaus’s hypnotic vision bursts from the screen, once again with its full impact. 

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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