So in the absence of a TV Magic Spectacular to write about I thought I’d try to compile an overview of films that have magicians at the core of the plot or magic (in terms of stage magic and conjuring) as a central theme.
I thought I’d try to create a Top Ten List in the knowledge that such a list is easily challenged and based upon personal bias.
What I ended up doing was to collate a list of movies that feature films which have magical themes or very obvious magical references in them. Of course the rash of Harry Potter films, the excellent Lord of the Rings trilogy and even Star Wars could be included. However, from a desire to expand the list of magician inspired or magically themed movies I have left t these out as being ‘too obvious’.
For reasons of brevity I have also not included fully animated movies in this list, so the likes of Fantasia, Sword in the Stone and even The Illusionist (Sylvian Chomet’s 2010 film) are not considered.
I’ve also ignored television series, such as The Magician (Bill Bixby trained by Mark Wilson), Jonathan Creek, the quirky 1970’s TV series Ace of Wands as well as specific Colombo, Midsummer Murders, One Foot in the Grave episodes that were based around magic and magicians.
So this brings us to a quick round-up of some of the best of the magician-in-the-movies films I am aware of. Starting with those just outside the Top Ten – not because of any lack of quality, just because they are a little peripheral to the main list.
Passport to Pimlico (1949) directed by Henry Cornelius and featuring great performances from Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford. This great Ealing comedy contains a sequence on the tube train where magician of the day The Great Masoni, drops his case allowing his doves to escape adding to the surreal nature of the comic moment.
Dead of Night (1945) directed by Alberto Cavancanti is a superb Ealing portmanteau horror movie which contained a series of stories about a dream told by a guest arriving at remote farmhouse. The film is said to have influenced cosmologists Hoyle, Gold and Bondi to develop the ‘steady state theory’. They were inspired by the circular nature of the films narrative. However the movie contains a story about a ventriloquist and a less than charming dummy. Ventriloquism is related to the magical arts, hence its inclusion here. The story is the forerunner of one that is actually in the list, Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins.
Thirty Nine Steps (1939) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The original and perhaps greatest version of this film the climax of which is takes place as in a theatre where a ‘memory man’ is performing. The Memory Act can be considered as a subset of the magical art of Mentalism. The great magician Harry Lorraine is world famous not only for his ‘magic’ act but also for his contribution to the training and development of the human memory.
The Raven (1963) directed by Roger Corman sees the great Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as medieval magicians involved a magical duel. This fun, camp and colourful movie loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, is not the greatest example of the Corman-Price collection, but is great fun.
Night of the Demon (1957) Jaques Tourneur. This great movie is an adaptation of M R James’ story “Casting the Runes”. Starring Dana Andrews as a sceptical psychologist ‘cursed’ by the Faustian looking magician and ‘cult’ leader Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis). In one sequence Karswell dressed as Dr Bobo performs magic at a children’s party. The conversation which then ensues between the psychologist and the magician holds within it a host of performance frames and ideas for budding bizarrists out there!. Tourneur apparently never wanted the audience to ‘see’ the demon. I many ways I wish he had had his way. The film would be even creepier and scarier if the terror was left to the imagination – again bizarre magicians take note!
The Magician (1958) directed by Ingmar Bergman. The only reason that film is outside the top ten is because of the possibility of being considered as being ‘pretentious’ if it is placed where I think it belongs – in the top 5 at least! Max von Sydow plays a travelling magician and ‘magnetic-healer’ (harkening back to the days of Mesmer) caught up in a tale about prejudice, honesty, the class system and ….. well the whole thing is multilayered. Sydow is brilliant, he rarely speaks, and Bergman’s visuals are great. The film has been called a ‘thinking mans horror movie/. It is creepy surreal and brilliantly acted and directed.
The Great Buck Howard (2008) directed by Sean McGinly is built around John Malkovich’s character who is in turn based upon the mentalist Kreskin.
Next (2007) directed by Lee Tamahori sees Nicholas Cage as a man who can see a few minutes into the future and disguises his gift by working as a lounge magician. Cage is seen as another kind of ‘magician’ in the fantasy movie The Sorcerers Apprentice (2010 directed by Jon Turtletaub) which makes direct references to the Disney Sorcerers Apprentice in Fantasia.
Magic Man (2010) directed by Roscoe Lever stars Billy Zane who plays Darius, the Magic Man of the title. Billed as a thriller, this movie hasn’t received the best of reviews. As I’ve not seen it yet I can’t comment – but maybe a future review of this list may see it included.
So onto the Top Ten
10 Excelsior Prince of Magicians 1901 directed by Georges Melies. This pioneer of film making was a magician before turning his hand to cine-magic. He produced many short films of which this is only one, but many of which featured movie versions of stage tricks that magicians would love to be able to actually do. He was one of the first film makers to feature stop frame, time lapse and multiple exposures. He also hand painted many of the black and white films he shot. A true innovator.
9 The Grim Game 1919 directed by Irvin Wilat. Not the greatest of movies to watch, but from a magician’s point of view a must. It featured Harry Houdini in the title role showcasing his feats of escapology. Houdini, not only a great magician but a great entrepreneur embraced early cinema but to be quite honest he made little lasting contribution to cinematic art. In some ways, perhaps, Melies earlier ‘trick photography’ lessened some of the dramatic impact Houdini’s live performances will have had.
8. Lord of Illusions (1995) directed by Clive Barker and based on his novel of the same name. This film is notable for its magical references. Not only does the ‘evil’ lead character Nix have supernatural powers, but his disciples have them. One of his disciples, Swann, after Nix’s early demise (prior to his later resurrection) uses his magical powers to become a popular illusionist. The staged magic sequences are well done, there is a cameo appearance by the great Billy McCombe and the Magic Castle is represented as a place of secrets. The basic concept that ‘magic is a dangerous reality’ is a great theme for the Bizarre Magicians out there.
7 Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) directed by Martin Cambell, sees Detective, Harry Philip Lovecraft (played by Fred Ward) living in a 1940’s Los Angeles where magic is common place. He is recruited by a rich man to find a lost book – yeap, you’ve got it… The Necronomicon! It’s really a Bogart-esque film-noire with a magical flavour, of course by definition then there are magicians. It’s witty, fun and full of Lovecraftian references. Unfortunately at the time of writing it, unlike its less sharp sequel (Witch Hunt) is not available for purchase on DVD.
Witch Hunt (1994) directed Paul Schrader. A sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell in which detective, H. Phillip Lovecraft played by Dennis Hopper combats the evils and corruption of a magic wielding senator. As a sequel not shoddy, but perhaps not quite as fun as the first movie.
6 The Great Kandinski (1995) directed by Terry Windsor. This ‘made for TV’ movie must be included in this list, not only for its charm and humour, but for its sensitivities. Richard Harris (whose work is admirable) plays a retired escapologist living in a nursing home. The story revolves around Kandiski’s desire to ‘chase one more secret’ and do one ‘final show’. The escape featured is Houdini’s Water Torture cell, which is a testament to the iconic nature of that one illusion.
5 Nightmare Alley (1947) directed by Edmund Goulding. An impressive movie and perhaps one of the all time greatest examples of film noire. Tyrone Power plays a ‘psychic con man’ Stanton Carlyle whose trail of deceit and self deceit take from rags to riches to rags. Of course the magicians out there will immediately see a link to a performer who used to go out under the name Rinaldo, but was better known professionally and now to mentalists’ world wide as Stanton Carlisle. (1928 – 1990). Stanton insisted, despite many good natured challenges, that that was his real name and was not influenced by the Goulding film.
4 House of Games (1978) directed by David Mamet. Ok not really a magic film, but features a performance of one of my all time magic heroes, Ricky Jay. Ricky is one of a group of con-men in this Hitchcockesque thriller. Mamet, as always does a great job in capturing mood and the movie explores human motivations and behaviours. Ricky Jay is of course no stranger to the big screen, with roles in the Bond Movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, Magnolia, Buck Howard, The Prestige and many more. This, I believe however was his first venture onto the ‘big screen’
3. Houdini (1953) directed by George Marshall with Tony Curtis in as Houdini. This movie does have a lot to answer for in that it creates some of the longer lasting myths about the life of the genuinely ‘mythic’ Houdini. His death on stage as a result of performing the ‘water torture cell’ is not fact, but the movie certainly hints at it. The ‘brush with death’ in a frozen river; the first performance of the ‘straight jacket’ at a Magicians Society dinner almost surely never happened – but the romance and innocence of the moment saves it. The magical advisor on this movie was Dunninger.
I suppose it is worth mentioning in passing that in 1998 there was a TV movie about Houdini (directed by Pen Denshem) and an earlier attempt at a biopic remake in 1976 with Paul Michael Glaser in the title role (directed for television by Melvile Shavelson). The movie Death Defying Acts (2007) directed by Gillian Armstrong focuses on Houdini’s documented interest in mediums and psychics and he is really the vehicle through which another story can be told.
2 Magic (1978) directed by Richard Attenborough and staring Anthony Hopkins. In the film Hopkins’ character starts out as a magician, but sees success as a ventriloquist. The movie charts the fall into insanity as the relationship Hopkins has with his dummy ‘Fats’. It’s a classic movie with some of the creepier overtones being softened by, what some claim to be, slower sequences of sentimentality.
1 The Illusionist (2006) directed by Neil Burger and staring Ed Norton. The pace and the feel of this film is wonderful. It is a love story with some great performances from a superb cast. The magical advice came from Ricky Jay and Michael Webber. Norton as Eisenhiem is the ideal stage magician. The cinematography is brilliant, the plot nicely involved and with, perhaps a few surprises.
1 The Prestige (2006) directed by Christopher Nolan. Whilst The Illusionist is sumptuous and engaging and at its core ‘hopeful’ and ‘romantic’, The Prestige is darker and deals with revenge, envy and competitiveness. Great performances from Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the feuding magicians each with a ‘secret’ and a narrative that is non-linear make the film engaging and well worth the little effort you need to keep up with the tangled web of intrigue. The ‘prestige’, the finale of the film, contains revelations that may surprise. Intelligent scripting brings the emotional tension to life and the rich magical references (Chung Ling Soo, The Bullet Catch, The Water Torture) make this film a must for magicians. Ricky Jay appears as an established stage performer and Michael Caine is great as the illusion builder – although I would never ask him to build me a vanishing bird cage!
I really can’t separate these two films in terms of quality of acting, direction and story so they share first place billing with…
Magicians (2007) actually deserves a Gold Star in this list. Directed by Andrew O Connor and with script written in collaboration with David Britland, Andy Nyman and Anthony Owen and others this is a magical tour de force. Opting for a comic look at the world of the conjuror, Magicians, sees Mitchell and Webb rattle through some great one-liners; pay homage to some key magicians and have a real knock at some of the oddness that is part and parcel of the magic scene. The great Pat Page makes an appearance, and most of the magic ‘stalls’ at the magic convention hosting the competition at the centre of the films plot were provided by well known magic dealers.