10 Stage Magician Movies

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you’d be so very kind as to direct your attention this way while our lovely assistant straps herself into this sinister looking box, you’ll see we have nothing up either sleeve and perhaps you’d like to pick a card -- any card…? With Louis Leterrier’s magician heist movie “Now You See Me” opening in theaters this weekend, we’ve been thinking a bit about the long fascination that movies have had with magicians -- not Gandalfs or Harry Potters or Merlins, but the stage-bound theatrical type who are more showman than shaman. Since way, way back, when perhaps a proto-nickelodeon shared a stage with a strong man, a pair of Siamese twins and a conjurer, the two disciplines have had their ties -- both borne of a kind of lowest-common denominator desire for entertainment and escape. And while both have progressed to unimagined levels of sophistication since their humble beginnings, there’s still some level on which every movie is just a magic trick. The movies, after all, fool us every day into believing that 24 still photographs flashed up in quick succession constitute a moving image, and what is a master filmmaker if not someone who’s simply better at concealing the wires and levers that precariously suspend our disbelief?

Really though, it’s just fun to be fooled, and as many magician films deal in meta-commentary on the nature of filmmaking and deception, probably three times that number are just aiming to be a silly lark. Representing both camps, then, we’ve pulled from a top hat a string of ten knotted-together films featuring prestidigitators good and bad, mad and sane, in celebration of the art of misdirection, sleight of hand and illusion. Believe your eyes!

the magician
"The Magician" (1958)
Widely regarded as “lesser Bergman,” “The Magician” may not contend in the weightiest way with the great Swede’s intellectual preoccupations, but it’s still a gloriously shot, enigmatic and enjoyable meditation on the nature (and perhaps dishonesty) of showmanship, and the science vs. supernatural debate. Starring Bergman regulars Max von Sydow (whose saturnine face is used to great effect -- indeed the film’s Swedish name is “The Face”), Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson, the film’s tonal shifts from bawdy comedy to horror to talky think piece in which People stand for Ideas, would be more of an issue if it wasn’t all smoothed over by looking so crisply composed and amazing. As it is, the tale of a traveling magician and his troupe getting waylaid and investigated by police and medical authorities (representing absolute rationality, where the magician represents the uncanny) is light enough to be a pleasant watch that can be filed away again after, but has plenty of thought-provoking undercurrents (particularly in the ambivalent, tortured, sometimes noble and sometimes ridiculous figure of the Magician) if you care to tease them out. [B+]
What's The Act? Mesmeric medicine, magnets, mind animation (and apparently alliteration), Vogler’s act is a mixture of ancient potions brewed by a witch-like grandmother figure, actually effective mind control and bogus trickery involving wires and pulleys.
Act Rating: 6/10 rabbits. Though maybe they’ll up their game for the King of Sweden.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

"Penn & Teller Get Killed" (1989)
Directed by Arthur Penn, yes, the Arthur Penn who directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (even the mighty fall at the end of their career), this satirical 1989 black comedy was a favorite of ours in our youth (or for a least the older Playlist members who saw it), but holy shit has it aged poorly and.... maybe was terrible to begin with? Starring magicians Penn & Teller (you might first remember them from the Run DMC video, “It’s Tricky”), the paper-thin premise begins with the two illusionists -- who are constantly playing elaborate, borderline brutal jokes on each other -- on national television and Penn declaring that he wishes someone would try and kill him. It’s part of a dumb gag where the always-silent, mime-like Teller slits his throat, but after the show is over and their pranks on each other begin to escalate into irresponsible territory, they soon discover that the public has taken their wish seriously and is actually trying to kill them. But half the time, these would-be attacks are just pranks from one another so it’s difficult to tell what danger is a reality and what is a gag (cult favorite David Patrick Kelly plays a sociopath out to get them). Somewhat creepy and disturbing as the hi-jinks continue to worsen, the film ends in tragedy with the Bee Gees’ ascending “I Started A Joke” playing to thick and dripping irony (as if they heard the song and then built the whole premise around the movie). Painfully dated, with groan-worthy humor arriving at every moment, the movie is even worse in that while based on a buddy dynamic, Teller can’t speak, so the insufferably loud-mouthed and obnoxious Penn takes over most of the movie (and Teller is no Chaplin). If "Penn & Teller Get Killed" is still appreciated, it must be by die-hards only. Just remember if this does spur you to revisit the film (YouTube only, not available on DVD with good reason), you can’t ever get that tedious 89 minutes of your life back. [D]
What's The Act? Variations on fake death, often with the magicians revealing how the tricks were done (a magical no-no).
Act rating: 3/10 rabbits. The act might have been entertaining in Atlantic City, but with the detestable Penn narrating the entire thing, it begins to grate pretty fast.

the prestige

The Prestige” (2006)
With Touchstone Pictures showing admirable restraint in not marketing this as Batman vs. Wolverine, this offering from Christopher Nolan is actually a perfect example of his oeuvre: popular films with a pensive streak running amidst all the action. “The Prestige” offered the director a break between “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and it’s a smaller film in size and scale, but no less ambitious. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman star as Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, two dueling magicians in 19th century London whose rivalry extends beyond the stage to cause devastation in their personal lives. “The Prestige” is a complex, plot-and-character-driven film that improves upon the Christopher Priest novel it was based on, thanks to a strong adaptation from Nolan and his brother Jonathan, typically gorgeous cinematography from Wally Pfister and as a solid cast. As if the leads weren’t enough, Bale and Jackman are joined by Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis and – in a bit of genius casting as inventor Nikola Tesla – David Bowie. We also love the inclusion of real-life magician and actor Ricky Jay in the film’s early scenes. The psychological drama gets better with multiple viewings after its major illusions are revealed in the final act. [B+]
What's The Act? Borden and Angier one up each other throughout the film, but their signature acts are The Transported Man and The New Transported Man, respectively. We'll risk getting blacklisted by the Magician's Alliance – and *SPOILER* haters – to reveal how the two illusions work: Borden's Transported Man makes the magician appear to be going in one door and stepping out of another across the length of a stage, which is wow-inducing until you realize that it's Borden's twin walking out of the second door. The New Transported Man involves a Tesla-created contraption that actually does transport Angier – or a spontaneously created version of himself – across the theater. The original Angier drops below the stage to drown, while his newly-made counterpart takes a bow and basks in the applause.
Act rating: The Transported Man gets 5/10 rabbits, while the newer version of it gets an 8/10, simply for the sheer distance/psychological creepiness involved. But Borden's larger act of *SPOILER* spending his whole life pretending not to be twins is the real trick that'd get the full 10/10 rabbits – that is, if anyone could tell there was a trick at all.

lord of illusions

"Lord of Illusions" (1995)
Utterly ridiculous late-night TV trash, Clive Barker’s “Lord of Illusions” is still kind of great campy, gross fun, being such a hotchpotch of clashing genres, acting styles and baffling plotlines. Cult leader with occult powers Nix is rebelled against by protege Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) when he kidnaps a young girl, Dorothea, for ritual sacrifice. Years later, Swann is now a famous illusionist, married to Dorothea who has grown up to be Famke Janssen (magic!), but other devotees are trying to bring Nix back from the dead, leaving a string of grisly murders into which scene stumbles D’amour (Scott Bakula), a PI with a background in occult crime. A trick of Swann’s goes wrong apparently leaving him dead, D’amour falls for Dorothea, some bald dude with sharpened teeth and an eyebrowless chap in PVC pants run amok, bloodily killing a lot of people to death (there are some inventive, if now aged-looking, VFX) until the final showdown where newly not-dead Nix dies. And again. And again. It’s completely risible on every level, especially the tragically unsuccessful attempt to fuse noir with horror (Bakula we love, but he does play this like he’s just Quantum Leapt into this story from a '70s sub-Philip Marlowe flick), but if you’re in the mood to enjoy a schlock horror movie ironically, there’s a whole lot here to be ironic about. [D+]
What's The Act? Unfortunately Barker kind of wastes the interesting notion that in his stage show Swann uses real magic disguised as illusion (because despite having dark mystical powers the best thing he can think of to do is be a Las Vegas magician). We only see one snippet of one of Swann’s shows, and it’s mostly a lot of cult-like dance/writhing before he dies during a trick. Or does he? DOES HE?
Act Rating: 8/10 rabbits, probably would have been great seeing as he was actually magic.

"Scoop" (2006)
If you’re hoping for a magical thrill ride or even just some nifty sleight-of-hand, “Scoop” is not the picture for you. Not only does magic take the backseat plot-wise, with the film centering around an attractive (albeit bespectacled and therefore smart) journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) in her attempt to unmask the Ripper-esque Tarot Card Killer rampaging through modern-day London, but the magic itself isn’t so good. In an unsupportive supporting role, Woody Allen plays hack magician Sid Waterman, aka “The Great Splendini” (the name says it all), whose main trick is making people disappear in a large painted box/booth called “The Dematerializer,” a possible nod to “Houdini” (in the 1953 film, Houdini is summoned to explain the secret of “dematerialization”). Sid enters into the picture when the student stumbles on his act and somehow comes to the conclusion that she could use Sid in her quest. Although the duo take on new personas to entrap Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), who they suspect to be the Tarot Card Killer, mere deception does not a magician make. Also, for having the name “The Tarot Card Killer,” he seems to only use the cards as a signature for his hooker killings rather than having any apparent magical or mystical significance -- a waste of a spooky name if you ask us. Oh, and there’s Death. He shows up, but again, not so magical as matter-of-fact, bordering on hokey. Without spoiling it, the journalism student gets her scoop with little help from the magician and we all left the theater feeling a little deceived. A lackluster trick from Mr. Allen. [C]
What's The Act? Sid Waterman is an example of an inside-entertainment joke that’s worn too thin over the years, the bad magician. Lacking the skills of the trade, he tries to make up with comedy, only showcasing how inept of a showman he really is. Picture Gob (Will Arnett) from “Arrested Development,” but without the awesome, self-delusional charisma.
Act rating: 1/10 rabbits. A hokey disappearing act combined with some well-worn jokes, it’s something you could maybe enjoy ironically, but probably not. If you’re the sort of Woody Allen fan that would clap when he sneezed, eh, bump it up to 3/10 rabbits.