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Monday, November 12, 2007

Beyond the Veil (originally published 1/01)

If you had a premonition that I was going to mention "The Gift," the recently released Cate Blanchett picture, in this week's column, you just might want to go and see the film. It's about a widowed psychic (Blanchett) who is persuaded to use her second sight to shed some light on a baffling missing persons case. For those of you without ESP - the rest of you already know - here's a selection of older films that also feature psychic and clairvoyant characters.

"The Clairvoyant" (1934). Claude Rains, following up his success in "The Invisible Man" (1933), portrays a fake clairvoyant whose counterfeit abilities suddenly become real. It seems that he is able to foretell the future, but only when in the presence of a particular young woman. As long as he uses his newfound talent for things like predicting Derby winners no one seems to mind, but when he correctly predicts a mine disaster he finds himself accused of causing the tunnel to collapse in order to fulfill his prophecy. The title of this film, by the way, is sometimes listed as "The Evil Mind."

"Séance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964). Kim Stanley, a veteran of the Actors Studio school of method acting, has appeared in only a handful of films. Mostly she has chosen to ply her trade on the stage, but when she does occasionally take to the screen, better stand back and give her room. Her film work is consistently memorable, and her portrayal here of a disturbed medium is certainly no exception. As Myra Savage, she is a professional medium in need of some favorable publicity to showcase her talents. She hatches a plot to kidnap a child and then "solve" the case by providing the police with clairvoyant clues. Her husband, Bill, played to perfection by Richard Attenborough, isn't so keen on the idea but is unable to stand up to the domineering Myra. What begins as a rather offbeat suspense plot goes on to become an absorbing character study, as we gradually become aware of the depth of Myra's madness. Soon she is claiming to be in contact with her stillborn son, who wants them to kill the child they've kidnapped so that he'll have a playmate. You won't soon forget this overlooked little classic.

"Don't Look Now" (1973). Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, who also wrote "The Birds," this difficult but fascinating film tells the story of a couple who are struggling to cope with the death of their young daughter. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play the bereaved parents, John and Laura Baxter, who are temporarily living in Venice while John does some architectural work on a church that is being restored. By a chance encounter, they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic. The clairvoyant sister, who is blind, tells the Baxters that she has seen their deceased daughter sitting beside them. Laura is fascinated, but John thinks it's all nonsense, at least until he begins having psychic flashes of his own. Director Nicholas Roeg's striking visual style and expressive editing are appealing, but many viewers are put off by his unconventional storytelling methods. Instead of proceeding absolutely chronologically from beginning to end, he occasionally jumps around in the sequence of events in order to draw associations between one scene and another. It's demanding on the viewer, no question, but if you stick with him you'll be rewarded with both a genuinely creepy, moody story and an engrossing meditation on the philosophical problem of epistemology, or how we know what we know.

"Eyes of Laura Mars" (1978). Filmmakers often exploit the dramatic potential of psychic powers that are beyond the psychic's control. One example is this story of a character who is tormented by an involuntary psychic link to a serial killer. Faye Dunaway plays the title character, a fashion photographer who sees, in horrific flashes, the mutilated bodies of the killer's victims through her own eyes. The script was co-written by John Carpenter.

I'd also love to tell you about "Flesh and Fantasy" (1943) and "Nightmare Alley" (1947), both of which feature great psychic characters, but unfortunately neither has yet been released on video. When will they be released, you ask? Hey, if I could tell you that, they'd have made a movie about me by now.

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