When we meet Chandra the Magnificent (Warren William), he is neither Chandra nor magnificent. Instead he is a traveling huckster, a dentist in one town, a hair tonic salesman in another. After being impressed at one carnival by a scam psychic, he chooses the name Chandra from an advertisement and enters his new career with gusto. Chandra's (admittedly rather transparent) scam is to take questions from his audience and deposit them in a "furnace" which actually sends the slips of paper beneath his stage. There, assistant Frank (Allen Jenkins) - when he isn't talking racehorses with Sam (Clarence Muse) - collects the clues and reads them back to Chandra, who listens via a wire emplanted in his turban. Pretending that he picked up these questions from the ether (no one ever asks why a psychic needs them written down at all, even out of sight), Chandra offers advice to the spectators. One night he advises Sylvia (Constance Cummings), a restless young woman choosing between her Chicago-bound boyfriend and unknown adventures elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, he encourages the naive girl to choose the latter and before long she has...in his arms. Will he change her or will she change him?
The narrative is extremely episodic, stitched together by the bigger questions of whether Sylvia will finally wise up to Chandra's nature (revealed to her in bits and pieces) and if Chandra will reform out of love. And yet both questions are answered only to be posed again, quite realistically (since life itself does not conclude with booming music and a "The End" title when a problem has been "solved"). At one point, Chandra - having caused a woman's death (well, to the extent that she herself isn't to blame for modeling her life choices around the advice of a mail-in psychic) - agrees to abandon his career for Sylvia's sake and they move to New York where he becomes a door-to-door Fuller brush salesman. Trading its dusty small-town environs for a wintry Gotham, the movie throws us off-guard. Has Chandra truly changed? When he runs into his old buddy Frank, working as a chauffeur for a wealthy - and mutually adulterous - couple, one of many in the city of sin, Chandra (now redubbed "Dr. Munro") launches a new scheme: using information from bribed chauffeurs to inform the lonely housewives of the Upper East Side about their husband's amorous activities. As you can imagine, this too backfires.
There's a special quality to thirties films, especially those early talkies created before the Production Code - a kind of reckless approach not only to risque content but storytelling style. Maybe that's a generous way of stating that many Hollywood narratives of the time have a tendency to wander. Rather than find a tight throughline and stick to it, they travel from scene to scene somewhat clumsily, unafraid to end up somewhere far afield from where they began. Certainly this quality could be criticized, compared to shaggy-dog stories, and blamed on the studio system's tendency to treat film production like an assembly line with various writers tackling the material in succession. Yet this is a quality I've always enjoyed, appreciating the willingness to jump into new locations or shift the story completely when an idea or motif gets old. There's something fearless about this disregard for meticulous structure, and when done well these ragtag classics - so often produced by Warner Brothers - have a spitfire vitality. Warners' The Mind Reader is no exception.
Geographically, the film is quite literally all over the map. Like its protagonist, the story leaps from obscure Midwestern town to obscure Midwestern town (at one point, causing me to wonder if The Beach Boy's "Kokomo" was actually a sly tribute to a city in Indiana rather than a tropical island). It does so with a splashy onscreen map that evokes Indiana Jones in the modern-day viewer's mind, adding a dash of exotica to the all-American landscape, much like Chandra's mystical mumbo-jumbo. The Mind Reader travels further afield in its second half, not only to New York but eventually Mexico. More importantly, character changes and plot developments arrive quickly and economically - Chandra is a salesman, wealthy conman, fugitive from justice, and alcoholic degenerate in short order, the wild convolutions of character barely sustained by Warren William's suave charisma. Like its main character, The Mind Reader shuffles us through its wild narrative by sleight of hand; we are completely caught up in the energy of the characters and Roy Del Ruth's fast-clipped direction. There are quite a few examples of convenient coincidence, arbitrary plot twist, and bizarre character behavior but The Mind Reader's excellent poker face keeps us engrossed and avoids provoking our credulity.
In this, the viewers echo Sylvia's onscreen state. Chandra has perpetually proven his unreliability to her: when she discovers his initial scam, overhears his discussion of a larger crime, witnesses the suicide of a woman he conned, discovers he has been lying to her again, and even gets set up for a murder he committed. Yet she still loves, forgives, and trusts him in the end, when he appears at her hospital bedside after turning himself in. True, that was an honorable gesture (clouded by the fact that his first instinct was to abandon her). When claiming he doesn't love her anymore, however, Chandra is performing a complicated bit of chicanery. He hopes that she'll sniff out his sincerity just enough to refuse his "chivalrous" end to the marriage, but not enough to deduce that he is using that superficial realization to lure her in closer. Reverse psychology as its most convoluted yet effective. Whew! Ultimately both Chandra and the movie are smarter than we might initially suspect. Embarrassingly, it took me two viewings to realize Chandra probably hasn't truly reformed when the film is over. This ambiguity simultaneously fulfills and subverts the expected Hollywood happy ending, leaving us to wonder: is this a redemption, a comeuppance, or a sly victory? As the film closes, I too have been fooled by Chandra.