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.
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).
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).
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, 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.
Producer: Michael Balcon
Director: Maurice Elvey
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Bryan Edgar Wallace, Ernst Lothar (novel)
Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Film Editing: Paul Capon
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Music: Arthur Benjamin
Cast: Claude Rains (Maximus), Fay Wray (Rene), Mary Clare (Mother), Ben Field (Simon), Jane Baxter (Christine Shawn), Athole Stewart (Lord Southwood).
by Jeff Stafford