Second Sight

The gift of clairvoyance and the ability to predict the future is a plot device that has been well mined in the cinema from It Happened Tomorrow (1944) to Nightmare Alley (1947) to The Night My Number Came Up (1955). But one of the earliest and most intriguing presentations of this phenomenon can be found in the rarely seen 1934 release, The Clairvoyant (aka The Evil Mind). Made at an early stage in Claude Rains’ career when he was still accepting film work in both Hollywood and England and was not yet a contract player at Warner Bros., The Clairvoyant provides an excellent showcase for the actor as Maximus, the mind reader.

The Spanish film poster for THE CLAIRVOYANT (1935).

Traveling about from town to town with a small entourage consisting of his wife (Fay Wray), mother (Mary Clare) and stepfather (Ben Field), Maximus makes his living with a harmless but phony stage act. During one performance, however, he develops real powers of clairvoyance due to the presence of newspaper heiress Christine Shawn (Jane Baxter) in the audience. For some unexplained reason Christine’s close proximity sparks Maximus’s newfound skill and enables him to not only predict a disastrous train wreck but also pick winners at the race track.

As Maximus’s fame and fortune skyrocket, his personal life begins to unravel; his wife threatens to leave him when he begins to spend more time with Christine in promoting his career. Events take a turn for the worse when he prophesizes a mining disaster but the mine owners fail to heed it. When his predictions come true, he is blamed for creating a panic situation that caused the death of countless men and placed on trial. Yet, his powers of clairvoyance extend beyond predictions of death and disaster and his innocence is established by a final prophecy that becomes a reality.

Maximus the Great (Claude Rains) realizes that having the gift of second sight is a curse, not a blessing, in THE CLAIRVOYANT (1935), co-starring Fay Wray (pictured).

Though obviously made on a small budget, The Clairvoyant is a briskly paced entertainment that bears some similarities to the early British films of Alfred Hitchcock such as Number Seventeen (1932) and The 39 Steps (1935) where the tone can change seamlessly from light comedy to taut suspense. The first half of the film where Rains displays a devil-may-care charm as he exploits his talents to the highest bidder is light and carefree while the second half descends into darkness as Rains confronts the burden of his strange new gifts.

The other most obvious Hitchcock connections are producer Michael Balcon, who gave Hitchcock his first directing opportunity and later produced some of his signature British films (The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage, 1936), and character actress Mary Clare, who made memorable appearances in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Rene (Fay Wray) assists her husband Maximus (Claude Rains, onstage in the background) in the 1935 thriller THE CLAIRVOYANT, directed by Maurice Elvey.

Another Hitchcock connection is Charles Bennett, who co-authored the screenplay with mystery writer Edgar Wallace. Bennett was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, along with Joan Harrison, for Foreign Correspondent in 1940. He also worked on Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Secret Agent (1936) and several others. Fantasy film buffs know him as the screenwriter of the cult horror thriller Curse of the Demon (1957) and 1960 remake of The Lost World.

As for Edgar Wallace, he was much more prolific as a novelist and his books inspired the German crime film genre known as krimi, which began in the late fifties, peaked in the sixties and died out in the mid-seventies. Among the more celebrated titles, many of which featured Klaus Kinski in supporting roles, are The Avenger (1960), Dead Eyes of London (1961), The Inn on the River (1962) and The College Girl Murders (1966).

Rains, of course, was already well known for his breakthrough performance as The Invisible Man in 1933 but The Clairvoyant, the last of his British films prior to his Hollywood career, remains mostly overlooked among his achievements. In the role of his devoted but increasingly jealous wife Rene, Fay Wray consistently plays against expectations with her naturalistic and subtle dramatic performance. She doesn’t scream once and never resorts to the sort of histrionics which made her such an ideal damsel-in-distress in Doctor X (1932), King Kong (1933), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

British director Maurice Elvey

Maurice Elvey was one of the most prolific directors in the British cinema but, despite occasional work in Hollywood, most of his films received limited distribution, if any, in the United States. Nevertheless, he was particularly adept at genre-hopping and turned out an impressive number of suspense thrillers (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1920), The Sign of Four (1923), The Lodger aka The Phantom Fiend, 1932); The Clairvoyant is one of his best. Later, plot elements from it would be incorporated into Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) starring Edward G. Robinson.

The Clairvoyant has been available on VHS and DVD from various distributors for years but most of the releases have been public domain copies of inferior visual quality and are missing an additional 12 minutes which was cut from the film after its initial release. In 2011 Odeon Entertainment in the UK released the longer 80 minute version of the film on DVD and while the image quality is an improvement over the PD versions, it is still soft with print damage at times which is not unusual for a film from 1934. Occasionally Turner Classic Movies will also air the longer version so watch for it.

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