John Alton (1901-1996) was one of the all-time great directors of photography, and it's on his work in the black-and-white, shadowy worlds of film noir that a good bit of his reputation rests. This double feature from VCI shows him at his best, unfortunately not in spectacularly great transfers - though they may well be from the best prints available - but nonetheless they do give a decent idea of what he was capable - and they're darned fine films regardless. Other than his shared credit, and a filming date just months apart, the two have little in common, though both are fascinating examples of the style that really push the limits of what we might want to call "film noir".
THE AMAZING MR. X was directed by the fairly obscure Bernard Vorhaus, an American filmmaker who made just about 3 dozen low-budget features over a 20 year span starting in 1933, before being blacklisted and moving to Wales, where he had secondary behind-the-scenes credits for a few more years, apparently retiring in 1960 though he lived another 40 years after that. The only other film he made that seems to have any following whatsoever is a 1940 John Wayne quickie, THREE FACES WEST, one of Wayne's last b-movies made just as stardom arrived. So I can't say I had any real expectations going into this, which is probably a good thing. Basically we start with Christine (Lynn Bari), a lonely widow being courted by Martin (Richard Carlson), who meets a strange man, Alexis (Turhan Bey), who is apparently a psychic who knows much of her past, on a deserted moonlit California beach. Alexis is accompanied by a huge raven - we know we're in for something weird and spooky here, and this scene is expertly shot and put together, building a sense of unease both about Christine's past - and about the mysterious stranger.
Turns out Christine isn't really over the death of Paul, her husband, and she goes to meet the psychic after a terrifying ghostly apparation in her house which scares her and her sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell). Janet though is a bit more blasé about the whole thing and wonders if the psychic is too good to be true, even after he tells Christine all kinds of things that he "couldn't possibly know". She enlists the aid of Martin and a PI and former magician (Harry Mendoza) but eventually falls under the spell of the mysterious Alexis, who shows himself before long to in fact be the unscrupulous con artist and crook that Martin and the cop think he is. But soon it turns out that an even greater scam is being perpetrated, and a ghost of the past comes back as the true villain of the piece...
Outstanding, deeply shadowed chiaroscuro photography as always from Mr. Alton, flavorful performances from Bey and Donald Curtis as - well, as the guy who spoilers are made for who shows up late in this 78-minute quickie, and nice stormswept California locations make up for a certain inevitability of the plot; the rather overwrought but fitting music is by Alexander Laszlo. And the raven is very very cool. This is what I think of when I hear the term "California gothic".
The 20th film I've seen from director Anthony Mann, 1949's BLACK BOOK aka REIGN OF TERROR might at first seem rather atypical in the director's ouevre, which consisted of three main areas of interest: film noir, westerns, and Biblical-ancient historical epics. But the first few minutes of this film, stunningly photographed by John Alton, should be enough to convince anyone that, whatever the setting, this is a film that belongs firmly in the deterministic, dark world of noir. Even if we're introduced to horses and churches and men dressed in 18th century robes, we're also introduced to a dark, shadowy, chaotic and terrifying world that puts us at immediate unease, dumping us into the labyrinth.
Basically we're in the Terror of the French Revolution, as Robespierre (a magnetic Richard Basehart) attempts to quell all opposition and get himself made dictator of France - and only d'Aubigny (Robert Cummings), masquerading as the public prosecutor Duvall who he has killed, seems to have much hope of keeping him from this goal. On d'Aubigny's side, the beautiful Madelon (Arlene Dahl); with Robespierre, the implacable and merciless Saint-Just (Jess Barker); playing his own game in between, the wonderfully sly and amoral Fouché (Arnold Moss). It's a film of intrigues, spies, double-crosses, secret passages and narrow escapes, through richly textured monochromatic cityscapes that are as impressive and wholly unreal as anything I've seen from the 40s.
It's rather useless to go through the plot, which of course has only a vague connection to real events, but suffice it to say that there's a "black book" that the would-be dictator keeps with names of all of his to-be-decapitated enemies (which would be practically everyone), and everyone wants to get his hands on it. There are horse-and-carriage chases, bar brawls, daring escapes and brazen lies aplenty throughout this baroque film, which more than most films of this era really betrays the early influence of Orson Welles in it's dynamic use of screen space, it's easy movements between extreme closeups and medium shots, and the terrific deep-focus work. Ultimately, I'm not quite sure that it hits a level of "masterwork", due for the most part to a fairly "Hollywood"-type quick and easy happy ending, but on the whole it's extremely impressive and it achieves what even most contemporary noir doesn't necessarily accomplish: the creation of an almost unearthly and hermetic world that's not entirely the French Revolutionary world of 1789, nor the world of Hollywood in 1949 but something...different. This really is the entrance to a dream, a fantasia, a nightmare. Right up there among Mann's best films and among the more intriguing and wild entries in the noir cycle.
As I mentioned, the DVD transfers aren't perfection here, but they are good. Extras consist of a photo gallery and commentaries on both films - by Jay Fenton on THE AMAZING MR. X and by Alan Rode and Arlene Dahl on REIGN OF TERROR. All in all, a top recommendation for any noir fans, and the best way currently to get both of these films.