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Abracadabra! 10 Stage Magician Movies & The Tricks They Perform

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 30, 2013 at 12:48PM

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.
8
fright night

"Fright Night" (2011)
When beloved '80s vampire flick "Fright Night" came around on the remake carousel, writers Marti Noxon and director Craig Gillespie swapped out Roddy McDowall's late-night-horror-host for a slightly baffling, presumably better test-marketed kind of vampire expert; trendy, Criss Angel-y Vegas stage magician Peter Vincent, played by former "Doctor Who" star David Tennant. It’s barely a real magician movie -- Vincent’s profession is a MacGuffin to let him impart some vampire-slaying knowledge to Anton Yelchin’s lead, who’s out to take down the skeezy neighbor (Colin Farrell) he suspects is one of the creatures of the night, until Vincent eventually comes out of his alcoholic stupor to save the day. The movie itself is actually fairly decent -- competently directly, occasionally creepy, solid performances across the board -- but also entirely forgettable, bar perhaps Tennant’s enjoyable performance. [C+]
What's The Act? We don't see a lot of the act, but what we do makes up in production value -- a dry ice and candelabra-filled set straight out of a Meatloaf video -- what it lacks in wow factor. Vincent does, however, squeeze appearing from thin air, levitation and fire throwing into the brief excerpt. As a performer, Tennant loses some points as the role quite obviously was written for, and turned down by, Russell Brand, but he's still pretty good value, more so once he strips away the hair extensions and gets to slay some actual vamps.
Act Rating: 5/10 rabbits -- you'd probably be wowed by the sets and the sexy vampire ladies, but from what we see here, there's not much groundbreaking in Vincent's act.

magic

"Magic" (1978)
A film that clearly came to us first at a very impressionable age, we were guilty of remembering the Richard Attenborough-directed, William Goldman-scripted “Magic” as a much more in-your-face experience than a recent rewatch has proven it to be. In fact it’s a kind of great, if narratively patchy, low-key psychological horror featuring an impressive early Anthony Hopkins performance as Corky, a stage magician/ventriloquist whose mental deterioration is channeled into his freakishly uncanny relationship with his dummy, Fats. While the film’s cleverness is that it never suggests anything more supernatural than insanity is going on, as Corky’s personalities divide further we associate the inanimate Fats with his evil side as surely as if he was Chucky the doll. With Ann Margret on board as Corky’s childhood crush, love interest and object of Fats’ jealousy, and a terrific Burgess Meredith as his agent Ben (the film’s best scene features a horrified but stoic Ben challenging Corky to keep Fats silent for just 5 minutes), even after things turn murderous, the film never descends into out-and-out horror, and culminates in a finale more poignant than gruesome. That said, it’s still largely responsible (along with the dummy story in "Dead of Night") for our low-level automatonophobia, which puts ventriloquist’s dummies right up there with clowns, mimes and suddenly waking up the day of an exam having not been in class all year, in our pantheon of all-time greatest subconscious irrational fears. [B]
What's The Act? Maybe the least convincing aspect of the film to the modern eye is that what seems like such a standard ventriloquist schtick (complete with horny, un-PC dummy longing for a “wood pecker” and suggesting to a lady that they go “for a roll in the sawdust”) could actually bring Corky to the brink of such massive success. Really it’s nightclub comedian jokes dressed up with a few card tricks and a wooden puppet.
Act Rating: 4/10 rabbits

The Illusionist Norton

"The Illusionist" (2006)
The first of a mini-trend of magic movies that hit in 2006, Neil Burger's atmospheric, sturdy "The Illusionist" (a surprise sleeper hit at the time) might be something of a throwback, but it's made with real love and care throughout. The magician of the title is Eisenheim (Edward Norton), who is in love with an aristocrat, Sophie (Jessica Biel), who is promised to Leopold, the abusive heir to the Austrian Empire (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim uses his growing popularity and his tricks, which seem to suggest he can commune with spirits, to fake his love's death and cause a revolt against Leopold. Biel, and to a lesser extent Norton, are somewhat miscast (thanks in part to the odd, clipped, vaguely European accents everyone's made to do), but Paul Giamatti, as the magic-loving policeman, gives a lovely turn, and it looks quite beautiful, with Oscar-nominated sepia-toned photography from Dick Pope (plus a terrific Philip Glass score). An imperfect, but enjoyable watch. [B]
What's The Act? There's a ton of magic throughout, with Norton proving to be a convincing close-up magician. The stage-show tricks contain plenty of wow factor -- Eisenheim summons an orange tree from thin air, invokes spirits from haunted mirrors, and brings back the ghost of the seemingly deceased Sophie. So as a ticket buyer, you'd surely feel you got your money's worth, even if Eisenheim isn't the most winning performer (he's more Bale than Jackman, to put it in the context of 2006's other magician movie). As a movie watcher, though, it's hard not to feel that Burger's cheating, given the extent of CGI and other effects that come into play here.
Act Rating: 7/10 rabbits

houdini
Houdini (1953)
Boy meets girl, boy meets girl again, boy meets girl yet again. Third time’s a charm, sheer luck or magic? Either which way, it doesn’t take long for Harry and Bess, as played by real-life Hollywood couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, to walk down the aisle. “Houdini” is a Classic Hollywood take on the life and times of Erik Weisz, aka Harry Houdini. With Bess by his side on and offstage, Harry becomes the most famous magician of all time, a name synonymous with death-defying stunts from getting out of a straightjacket to escaping Scotland Yard to attempting to communicate with the dead. During his lifetime, the real Houdini made six silent films (you can see one here). And since his death, he has been portrayed onscreen by the likes of Harvey Keitel (“FairyTale: A True Story”) and Guy Pearce (“Death Defying Acts”) amongst others, with Curtis’s performance in “Houdini” probably the best remembered, although not the most accurate. Taking artistic liberties with Houdini’s death in particular, the film has him dying due to a torture tank trick (see “The Prestige”) rather than being punched by a student in the appendix, although they did get the date right -- Halloween. But as an added bonus to the film’s authenticity, Curtis was an amateur magician himself and was able to perform most of the magic tricks. Liberties notwithstanding, this is probably still the definitive film about the definitive stage magician, even 60 years later. [A-]
What’s The Act? Houdini goes from escaping ropes and picking locks, to escaping straightjackets hanging off of a flagpole hanging off of a skyscraper, to escaping a safe he was locked in during his “fraud” hearing. The man knew how to develop an act.
Act rating: 9/10 rabbits. It’s Houdini. You can’t argue with the master, but we’re still waiting for him to rise from the dead (his proposed final act). We’ll keep a look-out at his grave on October 31st -- maybe 2013 will be the year.

The Illusionist Chomet

"The Illusionist" (2010)
Based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script (reportedly penned by the French comic legend in the hope of a reconciliation with a long-since-abandoned daughter), Sylvain Chomet's long-awaited follow-up to breakthrough "The Triplets Of Belleville" is a low-key charmer that might be about a magician, but contains most of its magic away from the stage. The title character is an aging, down-on-his-luck performer who leaves Paris for London in the hope of breaking out of his rut, but soon ends up in Scotland, where he forms a paternal friendship with a young girl who believes his powers are real, only to watch her grow apart from him. The film's actually more successful when it steps away from Tati's influence -- it never quite captures the magic, and the intrusion of a clip from the live-action Tati doesn't flatter it) -- but it's still absolutely gorgeous (particularly if you know and love its Edinburgh setting), delicate, and heartbreaking. [B+]
What's The Act? We don't see all that much of the title character actually performing: when he does, it's fairly traditional stuff (sleight of hand, rabbits in hats etc), performed competently, but without his heart truly being in it.
Act Rating: 4/10 rabbits

There are many, many more of course. Recent times have seen “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which we couldn’t summon the energy to write about again (reviews here and here). Spool back to 2008 and you get “The Great Buck Howard” starring John Malkovich and Colin Hanks, which played to good notices at Sundance but kinda went nowhere afterwards, while fans of cultish U.K. first-person sitcom “Peep Show” were largely disappointed by David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s 2007 attempt to transition to the big screen with “Magicians.” “Presto,” however, the Pixar short that played before “Wall.E,” was one of their best.

Further back, Vincent Price played “The Mad Magician” in 1954 in 3D, a film that reportedly bears the honor of being the first feature broadcast on TV in 3D, though we can’t find a wholly reliable source for that. Orson Welles played a stage magician in troop-morale-raising all-star vehicle “Follow the Boys” in 1944 (indeed Welles dabbled throughout his life in magic tricks, and a 27 minute cut of “Orson Welles’ Magic Show” an unfinished TV special does exist, just not on DVD, apparently).

But if “Now You See Me” constitutes the latest in this long line, let’s leave you with one of the first. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” clearly mixed magic and movies in the person of Georges Méliès, and if proof were needed of film’s long reciprocal association with stage illusions, here you have it. For our final trick, we give you Méliès’ own 1896 “The Vanishing Lady.”


-- Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Diana Drumm, Kimber Myers, Rodrigo Perez

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Now You See Me


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