Mystic Circle Murder aka Religious Racketeers
1938 / B & W / 68 minutes
The magician and escape artist Harry Houdini dedicated himself to efforts against spiritualists and mediums who bilked gullible people out of their money. His widow carried on this work. She appears near the beginning of this movie to warn people away from charlatans who claimed they could communicate with the dead. Skeptics who are interested in the topic of fraudulent mediums and their gullible clients may enjoy this odd period piece. The general public, maybe not so much.
The purpose of this movie is support Mrs. Houdini in her efforts to educate the public. A wealthy steel heiress is prime pickings for a phony medium because she’s dogged with guilt that she was not with her mother when she passed. Helene LeBerthron was a good choice for this part. One of those blue-eyed brunettes with pale skin, she looks young, vulnerable, and hopeful enough to make a con man lick his chops and make us in the audience yell, “Would you please listen to your skeptical journalist boyfriend, already?”
The medium, The Great La Gagge, explains to his greedy partner how to reel in suckers. He says that people want to believe in the uncanny and that they have to be gently prodded to persuade themselves that communication with the dead in indeed possible. The greedy partner works the sound board and the strings that produce the spirit manifestations. Doing so, he always has a coffin nail hanging from his mouth. The constant smoking somehow underlines that exploiting guilt and grief is all in a day’s work for these heartless cheats.
The movie also touches on the psychological manipulation that fakers employ to awe the mark. Like drill sergeants instilling obedience, they have the mark repeat simple phrases of affirmation. Like cult masters, they take marks out of familiar environments and surround them with strange new sights and sounds. They replace the belief systems of marks with esoteric philosophies and mumbo-jumbo. They cynically use distress, loneliness and sexual attraction against the mark.
As I hinted above, this is a movie best for movie fans that have a prior interest in the psychology of persuasion, such as why people believe weird things and how the yearning for the impossible makes people vulnerable to bunco artists. Although the actors do the best they can, more than a little dialogue involves the characters telling each other information they already know in order to bring the audience up to speed. The writing and acting, then, are so-so but, at only 68 minutes in the Alpha Video version, the pace is brisk and everybody keeps their dignity intact.