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July 2011

The Clairvoyant

cast: Claude Rains, Fay Wray, Jane Baxter, Mary Clare, and Ben Field

director: Maurice Elvey

77 minutes (U) 1935
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Clairvoyant

The Great Maximus (Claude Rains) is part of a music hall double act with his wife and beautiful assistant Rene (Fay Wray). They're in London trying out a new routine with Maximus posing as a mind reader. His wife goes out into the audience borrowing small personal objects from them and asks Maximus to identify them from the stage. It's fake of course. Her questions to him contain the clues he needs ("What am I holding this time?" - 'time' therefore, a watch).

Things take a strange turn though when Maximus catches the eye of a woman in the audience named Christine Shawn (Jane Baxter) and has a genuine vision. He doesn't think too much of it, but he runs into her again on a train to Manchester and has another vision - that the train they're on is going to crash. Maximus and those with him get off the train, but nobody else believes him. When the train does crash, Christine Shawn tells her father, who owns a newspaper. Suddenly the Great Maximus is in greater demand than ever before, but his powers only work when Christine is near him.

Claude Rains is excellent here. He makes the Great Maximus both credible and sympathetic. He's warned by his mother that the gift runs in the family and doesn't bring good fortune to those who carry it, but this is his shot at the big time. He can't understand why Rene seems so jealous of Christine and the time he increasingly spends with her. After he has another headline prophecy calling the winner of the Epsom Derby he realises that while so far he's only used his power for profit it might be useful for much more - he might be able to use it to save lives. Why would anyone want him to give up this new power?

The problem is, does knowing the future mean that you can change it? As his marriage comes under strain, the Great Maximus starts to discover that prophets are only popular as long as what they foresee is good news. Prophesise a disaster and you may find yourself being blamed when it happens.

This isn't a big film. The cast is small. Most of it is shot indoors. The focus is tightly on Maximus, Rene and Christine (though there are nice supporting performances from Mary Clare as Maximus's mother and from Ben Field as Simon, a friend and old music-hall hand). Rains, Wray, and Baxter take material that could be humdrum and give it real life, and director Elvey brings out the best in each of them (I particularly liked the very convincing affection between Maximus and wife Rene).

The film takes its premise seriously, and the classic Cassandra theme of knowing the future but being unable to persuade anyone to act on what you know is nicely handled (agents, theatrical promoters and sensationalist newspaper proprietors pay attention, but they don't really care if it's true or not). It's not hugely ambitious cinema, but it is well executed on pretty much every front.

Visually, the source print is in reasonably good condition. The sound, at times, is a little muddy, but it's nothing that really interfered with my enjoyment. This is a classic piece of 1930s cinema with a great cast and strong direction. It well deserves this fresh commercial release. Being a 1935 film, The Clairvoyant comes without DVD extras.



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