Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Madame Aracati, played by incomparable Margaret Rutherford, is undoubtedly my favourite movie psychic. I’ve always had a deep admiration for Rutherford herself as she was unquestionably a highly talented comedy performer, but more than that I always appreciated the sense of the peculiar and eccentric she always embodied that combined with the unapologetic and extraordinary uniqueness of her physicality set her apart in my young mind and made me glad to be unusual too.
Blithe Spirit revolves around a successful writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison), who wishes to research the occult for his next novel and so arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home. Faced with Madame Arcati’s spiritual theatrics and comedically clichéd rituals, Charles, his second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) and guests the Bradmans (Hugh Wakefield, Joyce) Carey: endeavor, with varying degrees of success, to suppress laughter and take proceedings seriously as the séance commences, however, during the séance, Arcati inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), who has been dead for seven years and Charles is the only one who can see or hear her. Hilarity then ensues as all hell breaks loose in the Condomine house between the two disgruntled wives.
Madame Arcati is the daughter of a medium, she had her first trance at age four, and her first “ectoplasmic manifestation” at five and a half. Despite being initially invited to the Condomine house as something of a figure of fun, Madame Arcati turns out to be an individual formidable in power and dignity. This medium is not to be trifled with, she deals with Dr. Bradman in fine and withering style when he sarcastically questions her on her supposed spiritual “control,” a little girl born in 1884 “She must be a bit long in the tooth by now, I should think.”, Madame A. sharply retaliates: “You should think, Dr. Bradman, but I fear you don’t; at least not profoundly.” Hell yeah, lady! Her potential for indignant wrath is further exhibited when Ruth lets slip that Madame Arcati was only asked to dinner “to get material for a mystery story,” then we see she is all hell in sensible shoes.
Another remarkable characteristic of Madame A. is her physical robustness, she’s no delicate, waiflike spirit communing aesthete, oh no, she’s a no nonsense, straight to the point, school mistress of a psychic who thinks nothing of pedalling miles on her faithful bicycle and always brings her appetite to any occasion. She may shy away from red meat before a trance but she’ll eat the hell out of a platter of sandwiches and wash them down with a martini or two.
In preparation for the séance Madame A. first begins to show hints of unconventionality in terms of mediumship she displays a distaste for Rachmaninov and scorns his ability to create the right ambiance and instead enquires about dance music and eventually selects an Irving Berlin tune, 'Always', that she claims is for the benefit of seven year old Daphne her adenoidal spirit ‘control’. Despite all early indications to the contrary, Madame A. is in fact genuinely spiritually gifted, even though it comes as much as surprise to her as it does to the Condomines when Elvira pitches up after the séance. Moreover she does not abandon the spiritual mishap once it is known; when faced with an unwanted ghost conundrum she displays an undefeatable attitude of great British resourcefulness and pluck, working tirelessly to resolve the pesky spectre situation.
What Madame Arcati brings to the psychic party is her youthful, almost childlike, enthusiasm and that seems to pervade her entire personality from her delightfully age inappropriate wardrobe of girlish frocks, fey frills, lace and bows and beads to her boarding school prefect mannerisms and phraseology. She is eccentric, excitable and doesn’t suffer fools gladly; a paragon of the kind of bluff and bluster that makes Britain great, if a little crazy, but sill great.