Who doesn’t love a good story about mentalism? Long before “The Mentalist” kind of narrowcasted the field into that of pure psychic powers, the word mentalism was used to describe stage hypnotists, those who claimed to have the power to control the minds of others, telepathic as well as telekinetic abilities, fortune-telling and even just exceptionally impressive exhibitions of memory. Oh how I miss the old days of mentalism before that sandy-haired consulting cop-dude shrunk the meaning down to next to nothing. Fortunately, the history of TV is one positively littered with mentalists of all sorts, both purely fictional and probably fictional.
The Amazing Polgar
If you really want to get the full skinny on what being a mentalist used to mean, track down any information you can on “The Amazing Polgar.” During a brief run in the fall of 1949, Dr. Franz Polgar spent ten minutes every Friday night on CBS providing serious examinations of all the scientific fields covered by mentalists. Well, almost all. Polgar sold himself very well, as mentalists often do. He claimed to hold doctorates from European universities in both psychology and economics. Of course, he also claimed to have worked closely with Sigmund Freud as a hypnotist, but those claims were later brought into serious question . All of which points to the one overriding truism about the world of mentalists: no matter what abilities either real or fictional mentalists claim to have, there always seems to be questions of charlatanism hanging about.
The Amazing Dunninger
More than half a decade after “The Amazing Polgar” closed up shop, “The Amazing Dunninger” appeared on the landscape of TV mentalism. Joseph Dunninger was one of those not-so-fictional mentalists whose powers of mentalism may well be subject to closer scrutiny. After guesting on other shows since 1948, Dunninger got his own showcase called “The Amazing Dunninger” that could be seen first on NBC and then on ABC during prime time. This was back in the mid-50s and Dunninger regularly put his mind-reading skills to the test before both celebrity guests and members of the audience. Such was Dunninger’s fame as a mentalist of curious quality that Johnny Carson regularly parodied him as “The Great Dillinger” on his own prime time variety show airing around the same period.
“Thriller” was a horror/suspense anthology in the vein of “Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that was hosted by Boris Karloff. An episode titled “The Prediction” may or may not been the showcase that initiated what would become a common theme among TV shows featuring mentalists: fakes who suddenly seem to think they have been blessed with a real gift. What sets “The Prediction” apart from other shows that tap into this plot device is that the old mentalist never even tries to convince people that his act is anything but pure hokum. The fake clairvoyant cannot escape the reality that his dreams of death are coming true. But does that really mean that he is no longer a phony mentalist?
Ralph and Ed are attending a meeting of the Raccoon Lodge and the special guest is a hypnotist. The highlight of this mentalist’s act, part one, is getting Ralph and Ed to switch personalities. It’s a hoot watching Ralph do his Ed Norton imitation and vice versa. The highlight, part two, is the real meat of the episode. Ralph invites the mentalist over to hypnotize wife Alice in yet another desperate attempt to put one over on her. Alice discovers the plot and learns that you cannot be hypnotized if you resist the urge. So when she goes under, it’s all a sham. Which only makes her “He’s too fat for me” song funnier.
Only a couple of the monster-of-the-week villains on “The X-Files” warranted a second episode. One of those was the least monstrous in appearance of any villain Mulder and Scully ever faced. Robert Patrick Modell was not a mentalist in the traditional sense of providing an act for entertainment purposes. His special little niche in the world of mentalism was mind control. A brain tumor transformed Modell from an average nobody into one of the most dangerous villains that Mulder and Scully ever faced. Something as simple as the softly spoken repetition of the words “cerulean blue” was all the weaponry Modell needed to “push” people into doing whatever he desired even to the extent of putting their own lives in danger against their will.
Murder by Natural Causes
What kind of wife would engage her lover in a conspiracy to kill a husband who can read minds? The kind of wife who knows that her mentalist husband is a fake, of course. You almost have to be a mind reader to figure out the unnecessarily complicated intrigue that suddenly explodes at the climax of “Murder by Natural Causes.” One thing about the world of mentalism is that not only is all not as it seems, but it cannot be as it seems if the act is to have any impact. Keep that in mind as you work your way through the complicated emotional architecture of this TV-movie that leads inexorably toward a climactic line of dialogue that could not be a more fitting exhibition of the real definition of irony.