CLASSIC FILM NOIR, VOL. 3
“Classic Film Noir, Vol. 3,” from VCI
Entertainment, an independent distributor in Oklahoma, offers significantly
upgraded editions of two intriguing films that have long circulated only in
dismal public domain versions. I had despaired of ever again seeing a decent
copy of Bernard Vorhaus’s “Amazing Mr. X” (1948), also known as “The
Spiritualist”; or Anthony
Mann’s “Reign of Terror” (1949), a k a “The Black
Book.” But here they are, and while not pristine, they’ve been brought back
to highly watchable form through a combination of chemical and digital
Both titles were originally released by the
long-gone British-American outfit Eagle-Lion Films, and both were photographed
by the brilliant and eccentric John Alton, one of the seminal stylists of film
noir. “It’s not what you light,” Alton once observed. “It’s what you don’t
light.” These two films are powerful studies in darkness and shadow, punctured
by bright beams of light — Alton’s trademark — projected from unseen sources
somewhere in the background of the deep focus frames.
X” is a gothic thriller starring the Austrian actor Turhan Bey, who brings
all his exotic charm (Turkish father, Czech mother) to the role of a fraudulent
psychic consultant attempting to draw a wealthy young widow (Lynn Bari) into his
clutches. The plotline allows plenty of opportunities for Alton to strut his
stuff: a nocturnal walk along a lonely, wind-swept beach; the halls of a
cliff-top mansion, echoing with ghostly music; a memorable séance on a sunny
California afternoon, during which ectoplasmic forms emerge thanks to some
ingenious work with an optical printer.
Left to his own devices, as he
appears to have been in “Mr. X,” Alton could come up with excessively elaborate
effects that distract from the drama. (At one point here his camera peers up at
an actress from the drain of a bathroom sink.) But he never fails to please the
eye, even as he steps outside the story.
“Reign of Terror,” a tale of
derring-do during the French Revolution, unites Alton with two other formidable
visual stylists, the director Anthony Mann (soon to move on to his famous series
Stewart westerns) and the production designer William Cameron Menzies.
(Menzies, the designer of “Gone with the Wind,” is credited here only as a
producer, but his hand is unmistakable in the low ceilings and bold geometry of
the sets.) The collaboration yields an almost unbroken procession of complex,
compelling images, which somehow remain largely in the service of the
tongue-in-cheek screenplay credited to Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan.