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Abracadabra! 10 Stage Magician Movies & The Tricks They Perform

Abracadabra! 10 Stage Magician Movies & The Tricks They Perform

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” (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” (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” (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” (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.

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” (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” (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 (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” (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

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