John Alton: The Amazing Mr X (aka The Spiritualist 1948)

capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty – John Alton *

John Alton: Noir Filmography as Cinematographer


  • T-Men Directed by Anthony Mann Eagle-Lion (Edward Small Production) 96 minutes
  • The Pretender Directed by W. Lee Wilder Republic 68 minutes


  • The Spiritualist (The Amazing Mr. X) Directed by Bernard Vorhaus Eagle-Lion 79 minutes
  • Raw Deal Directed by Anthony Mann Eagle-Lion (Edward Small Production) 78 minutes
  • He Walked by Night Directed by Alfred Werker Eagle-Lion (Bryan Foy Production) 80 minutes
  • Hollow Triumph (The Scar) Directed by Steve Sekely Eagle-Lion 83 minutes


  • The Crooked Way Directed by Robert Florey United Artists (Benedict Bogeaus Production) 80 minutes
  • Border Incident Directed by Anthony Mann MGM (Nicholas Nayfack Production) 92 minutes
  • Reign of Terror (The Black Book) Directed by Anthony Mann Eagle-Lion 89 minutes


  • Mystery Street Directed by John Sturges MGM 92 minutes
  • Witness to Murder Directed by Roy Rowland United Artists (Erskine Productions) 81 minutes
  • Devil’s Doorway Directed by Anthony Mann MGM 84 minutes


  • The People Against O’Hara Directed by John Sturges MGM 101 minutes


  • The Big Combo Directed by Joseph H. Lewis Allied Artists (Sidney Harmon Production) 86 minutes


  • Slightly Scarlet Directed by Allan Dwan RKO (Benedict Bogeaus Production) 91 minutes

* John Alton, ‘Painting with Light’ (Macmillan, NY, 1949), p. xli

4 thoughts on “John Alton: The Amazing Mr X (aka The Spiritualist 1948)”

  1. Ah yes, Tony, he’s one of the all-time greats, and he’s well-deserving of this telling filmography and summary testimonial. Just over the past few months I managed to see BORDER INCIDENT, T MEN, RAW DEAL, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, REIGN OF TERROR (all listed here) as well as a pictorially noirish western, DEVIL’S DOORWAY all on the big screen at the Anthony Mann Festival. If ever I had even the slightest doubt, this venture confirmed my position that he’s one of the greatest of all cinematographers! A DVD copy of THE SPIRITUALIST arrived at my house just weeks ago, coutesy of our wonderful mutual friend, so I’ll size up his work there again, and of course THE BIG COMBO is a stellar achievement.


  2. Let us not forget the work Alton does in the 1947 Albert Dekker film, THE PRETENDER, and THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA from 1951. Plenty of back lighting to create a depth of composition in both of those.


  3. I think he was not about lighting but about darkness – what’s hidden in dark places of a man’s soul we never know. His work is like carved piece of wood – delicate and infinite.

    Alton is a synonym of noir. It’s all about atmosphere and feeling. Smoke. Light. Mirrored crack of a smile.

    shakespeare wrote that people are shadows of God. Alton showed us what it means.


  4. Thanks Sam and Bob for bringing these omissions to my attention: Devil’s Doorway, The Pretender, and People Against O’Hara. The post has been updated.

    Todd McCarthy in his introduction to the 1995 edition of Alton’s book noted:

    . [Re The Pretender] “to accommodate Alton’s expressionistic intentions and deep-focus lenses, special sets were built with forced perspective”.

    . “Border Incident, a violent look at illegal immigration from Mexico, was one of Mann and Alton’s top achievements, as was the un­ justly neglected Devil’s Doorway, one of the very first righteously pro-Indian Westerns that suffers today only from the sight of Robert Taylor (in an uncharacteristically fierce performance) playing a half-breed. Mann specifically requested Alton for the picture, and their last collaboration paid off: the cameraman imbued even the expansive exteriors with a sinister quality. A confrontation and fight scene in a bar­ room also sizzles with low-lit, deep-focus tension within the frame.”

    Wonderfully expressive thoughts kilgort. It is all about light: shadow is the counterpoint rendered by light.


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