Magic Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Magic Movie Review

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“I want you to do something for me. Just a little thing that anyone ought to be able to do … and if you can do it … we'll forget the whole thing. And if you can't, we'll think about you seeing somebody fast. Is it a deal?”

“Name it.”

“Make Fats shut up for five minutes.”

Okay, so who gets freaked-out by dolls and ventriloquist dummies? One … two … thr- right, that's all of us, then. Good. Because we're going to take a little look back at one of those quietly chilling psychological horrors that the seventies seemed to do so well that just so happens to boast one of those unnerving little critters. Anthony Hopkins puts words in the mouth of his dummy, whilst the dummy puts murderous thoughts inside his master's head. Of course, it's all just in the mind … isn't it?

Or maybe, just maybe, as Paul Daniels would say … it's Magic!

Ealing’s classic 1945 6-part portmanteau horror Dead of Night was boosted immeasurably with the inclusion of the Michael Redgrave-starring The Ventriloquist's Dummy, the story of a ventriloquist driven insane by his own wooden co-star. And the device of having once-immobile dolls suddenly take on a life of their own has been the stuff of nightmare since Erich Von Stroheim went bonkers under the influence of The Great Gabbo back in 1929. From then onwards, we've had encounters with other ventriloquist's dummies in The Twilight Zone, those malicious little clockwork avengers in Herbert Lom's Asylum, the infernal voodoo effigy Charlie-Boy in the Hammer House Of Horror episode of the same name, an African tribal counterpart that terrorises Karen Black in Trilogy Of Terror, that malevolent clown-doll in Poltergeist, and a similar critter in Joe Dante's recent The Hole, as well as, of course, that scabrous little fiend, Chucky. But the thing about the ventriloquist's dummy is that clown-like parody of the human face, the smile drawn into a richly evil rictus-grin, and those sinister, all-knowing eyes. It is no wonder that those people who discovered the skill of throwing their voice were once regarded as black magicians who were possibly in league with the Devil. Let's face it, It would be rather unsettling to suddenly encounter even the cuddly, effeminate likes of Leo the Lion, or Nooky-Bear left sitting on the settee with their right-hand-man absent. You'd keep looking back at them to see if they'd moved, wouldn't you?

The trio of novelist/screenwriter William Goldman, director Richard Attenborough and star Anthony Hopkins had just completed the epic A Bridge Too Far (my dad’s in this, by the way!), and the little English filmmaker who would shortly wrestle Gandhi on to the Big Screen had proved himself not only adept at such a large-scale combat movie with a cast of thousands, but an absolute master of such expansive material. But the experience had probably taken its toll on him, and now the idea of a cosy, far more intimate drama, with only four main characters in it found itself of great appeal. So, once the initially attached director, Norman (Rollerball) Jewison, jumped ship, and the door swung open to him, Sir Richard Attenborough stepped in to help his old friend realise the movie adaptation of his bestselling thriller. Goldman was the kind of writer who could have his shopping list snapped up and optioned by a major Hollywood studio – smash hits like No Way To Treat A Lady and Marathon Man were already well known by this time, but Goldman would also scribe the screenplays for such out and out classics as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, All The President's Men and the cult-adored The Princess Bride (also adapted from his novel), as well the terrific The Ghost And The Darkness and even Chaplin, once again for his reliable chum, Sir Dickie. Even with all this in mind, the screenplay he came up with for Magic was incredibly faithful to his own successful novel of the same name, retaining the sparkling dialogue and the dark love, although pruning-out the clever wraparound device of having it seem like the recollections of the dummy, itself.

Thus, William Goldman's Magic commences with a skilful but overlooked stage magician called Corky Withers (a bristly, hair-trigger Anthony Hopkins) returning to his apartment after another unsuccessful night trying to wow disinterested audiences at a local talent spot. His aged mentor, Merlin Jnr. (played by E. J. Andre), can see through his lies about holding the punters in the palm of his hand, and the story seems to set to follow some protracted rags-to-riches Rocky-style climb from the gutter to fame and glory and bright lights. Wisely, and a touch unusually, we then flash forward to a couple of years later, after Merlin has died and Corky has indeed won the crowd over, to discover just what the secret of his success really is. Although extremely old-hat by today's standards and, I suspect, pretty much old-hat even back in 1978 when the film was made, Corky has become the darling of the entertainment circuit not because of his sleight-of-hand or his perfectly rehearsed card-tricks, but because of the argumentative, foul-mouthed and controversial partner-in-crime that he has enlisted. Fats, the cocky little puppet-squatter on his arm, literally steals the show every night, wooing the ladies, heckling his master and generally bringing the house down with a ribald sense of humour and a darkly ironic patter that seems to endear him to the late-night crowd. Fats is the alternative vaudeville act.

That Rocky adage is compounded all the more when we discover that one of the prime movers in Corky's rise to fame is none other than the Italian Stallion's old trainer, Burgess Meredith, here playing the wise-talking, ever-savvy manager Ben Greene. Corky is the dream-ticket for Greene who, in return, cossets him and sweet-talks him through the minefield of treacherous make or break deals, angling the act ever closer to a sensational TV show pilot that, if well received, could set the pair of them off down the Golden Mile (no, not Blackpool … Vegas!) and yet more fame and fortune.

There's just one snag. One fly in the ointment. The TV network insist that Corky undergo a medical examination. It is just routine, something that they would expect of any potential celebrity on their books. But Corky refuses point blank to go along with any sort of assessment, citing “principles” in his defence. When the studio doesn't back down, rage takes hold of him and Corky flees back to the area where he grew up, rents a lakeside cabin and seeks to rekindle his childhood crush on the luscious Ann-Margret's Peggy Ann Snow, who now runs the cabin-resort. Hiding away from his own burgeoning fame, even from his friend and confidante, Ben, Corky falls in love with Peggy and his charm appears to be working on her, too. Perhaps the performer can put his fears behind him and finally find happiness. But what if Fats isn't happy with this new arrangement? I mean he and Corky come as a package, don't they? And Fats is pretty adamant that he won't let anyone come between them.

Attenborough ensures that slow burn chills begin to spiral around the doomed love affair, his direction non-flashy, his aim never to go for the obvious scare. The film can feel quite languid as a result, though this is no bad thing. The narrative is strange, skewed slightly. The story feels like a three-act play – Goldman is indeed an acclaimed playwright – and despite some nice bustling big city views, the brisk location work in and around the Blue Lakes in California and the fine cinematography from Victor J. Kemper, who had lensed Hopkins the year before in the haunting Audrey Rose, Magic never forgets that it is an intimate drama that is as concerned with the internal machinations of the mind as it is with the outward manifestation of violent mania. The autumnal idyll is disturbed by snoopers and human obstacles who must be removed. There is never any doubt as to who is in control, so the film deliberately eschews that sort of mystery from the table pretty much from the outset. When Peg's husband, the taciturn Duke (Ed Lauter), a rugged outdoors sort of bloke, reappears on the scene, the film shifts into queasy soap-operatics. A love triangle is set up, but the scenario is trite and all rather dull, to be blunt. Basically, all three of the “human” members of the tryst are fairly unlikeable. And with the exception of Fats, they are all terribly indecisive about what they want, with much of their situation given over to rather tedious small-talk, verbal deceits and emotional deflections.

What we need are some kills. And, even if we don't get many of them, Magic expertly drops all the smoke and mirrors and pitches some bravura set-pieces that belie the softly-softly approach that Attenborough has taken in the main.

Magic is not a cheap shocker, though. With a story so tight and twisted, it has to have performances to match.

When first choice Laurence Olivier (who would have been terrible) fell ill, veteran actor Burgess Meredith took over the role of Ben Greene, and really gets his teeth into it. He starts off by being incredibly over-the-top as the bullish, wise-talking manager. He’s seen it all and done it all before. He drives around in a Rolls Royce, commands an army of legal minions and seems, to all intents and purposes, to be taking care of Corky only as a hobby. Smoking cigars that are actually the same size as the troll-like character actor and growling cynical observations about the showbiz industry, a predatory world the surface of which Corky has only just begun to scratch, he can't avoid stamping out Greene (or Gangrene as Fats likes to call him) as a cliché. But, as the film goes on, and takes that rather obvious, but no less spectacular turn, Meredith’s true qualities begin to shine. He plays a caricature at first – the part is just too large and too brazen – but once he has made that shocking revelation and put two-and-two together to diagnose Corky’s schizophrenia, he comes into his own. Suddenly, Meredith uses that arrogance and unimpeachable confidence as a weapon of compassion as well as authority. The classic scene, the one that everyone remembers, is when Ben Greene gives Corky the agonising ultimatum and has him attempt to speak without the intervention of Fats for a full five minutes. Both actors – well, all three of them, if we include Fats – deliver a real-time tour de force of cerebral Russian Roulette that piles on the tension as the seconds tick away to a conclusion that we all know is coming but find irresistibly exciting, just the same. But there's still a sticky and unconvincing moment when Greene comes out with this line about some good doctors that he knows who could help Corky. “Beautiful people” he calls them, and it sounds just awful coming from Meredith, who is anything but an ageing hippy. Then again, can you imagine how the line would have sounded if it had been emoted by Olivier?

“How long have you been like this, kid?”

“Like what? Oh, come on, you don't think that was for real? Christ, how do you think I rehearse.”

“No good.”

I always find Ed Lauter to be Craig T. Nelson without the sense of humour … almost like the Poltergeist star’s crankier older brother. As Duke, Peggy’s rather cold and unloving husband, Lauter’s expertly suspicious eyes work overtime from up above that Grizzly Adams-style beard. His slitted glare, angular face and terse attitude do not a romantic lead make, but you still feel for him as a man who just doesn’t possess the warmth or the appropriately conveyed emotions to halt his marriage from evaporating right in front of him. Lauter was an extremely familiar face from TV and film back then, with memorable turns in The Mean Machine, John Guillermin's King Kong and The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O and How The West Was Won, but the amazing thing is that he is still toiling away in front of the cameras as one of the hardest-working and most reliable supporting players, even appearing in the remake of the classic Mean Machine, The Longest Yard opposite Adam Sandler. Despite his gruff and unkempt look and the fact that the screenplay tries to inform us that he is some sort of villain who could stand in the way of Corky's and Peg's happiness, we certainly come to care what happens to him. Plus, even if he is often brusque and unfriendly, he is revealed as being surprisingly considerate and public-spirited when a certain body turns up out of the blue. And Attenborough is able to maintain that delicate juggling act between us wanting Duke to succeed in his detective work regarding his suspicions about the ventriloquist, and our becoming concerned for Corky's safety as more clues are unravelled, and Duke gets closer to the truth. This, in no small way, is down to how Lauter portrays this outwardly unsympathetic, yet ultimately very sympathetic man.

“Kid, I lived through Tallulah Bankhead and the death of vaudeville … I don't scare easy.”

The murder sequences are actually surprisingly brutal. A horrible shrieking accompanies one of them that is genuinely unnerving and leaves quite a haunting resonance lingering in the air. It is also fair to say that whilst the Coen Brothers cornered the market for the most arduous and painfully protracted death scene when they had Dan Hedaya despatched in Blood Simple, Attenborough managed a similarly traumatic demise for a pivotal character in Magic, which only adds to the nasty little taste that is left in the mouth. But Magic is more about the creeping sense of malevolence, rather than the actual perpetration of violence. The illogicality of us being afraid of a doll is infinitely more disturbing than witnessing it actually move on its own – which we know it cannot do. Yet, despite this audience wisdom, Attenborough conjures up an unmistakable and skin-crawling aura of suspicion and terror around Fats, and his presence in the frame is extremely palpable. Just as we would if the dummy was sitting on a chair in the same room as us, we can't help but look at him … and then look at him again in case he has moved. He is the implacable, ever-smirking bogeyman lurking in the corner of our eye. We know that he is nothing without Corky – and, in fact, he is still nothing to worry about even with Corky at the helm - but that damn paranoia that we all have about human effigies refuses to abate. As realistically dangerous as Corky is, we are definitely more afraid of Fats.

But then Fats is alive, isn't he?

He is at least as alive as Mrs. Bates is inside Norman's mind … and that limbo-fed existence is enough to commit murder.

Anthony Hopkins is adept at playing the troubled and the traumatised. Yes, has has had some problems in real life – there has always been a slightly “off” quality to him, both on the screen and away from it – but he tends to add a sort of lonely and pathetic charisma (for lack of a better word) that means you will always be happy to give him the time of day, even if you wouldn't necessarily invite his oddball characters back for dinner. Even his Hannibal the Cannibal isn't a mere monster. Educated, erudite, mannered and, somehow, vulnerably child-like - this is how Hopkins plays his psychos. His perfection at wringing quiet, dignified rage was exemplified even in the classic war film, A Bridge Too Far, in which his once-proud but ultimately defeated Para, Lt. Col. Frost, politely accepts a bar of chocolate from Maximilian Schell's victorious German commander – and we can smell the simmering resentment and shame that is festering just beneath that refined façade and stiff upper lip. Hopkins is a master at such impeccable heartbreak, with his staggeringly inspired portrayal of the tortured Captain Bligh in The Bounty, and his learned compassion as Dr. Treaves in The Elephant Man.
The character of Corky is one that a lot of actors would either kill for, or kill to avoid. The splitting of a personality, or the playing of dual roles, is a real test. It could come off with wretchedly comical results, rather like that classic Tommy Cooper sketch with one side of the legendary performer's body dressed as a Nazi officer and the other side as a British colonel, and the crude effect made by simply turning from one side to the other to switch characters. Hopkins even learned how to perform ventriloquism to a degree - although I'm pretty certain that he doesn't deliver all of Fats' lines in the same shot, or even the same scene as Corky, and obviously looped them afterwards – so you know that he has climbed inside the head of character with the two personas inextricably entwined therein. You can therefore be under no illusion that, for the duration of the shoot, Anthony Hopkins has been both Corky and Fats, lock, stock and barrel. The only thing that doesn't sit right with me about his characterisation is the frequent jovial pleasantry of “Sports-fans!” that he directs towards Fats when in a good mood. It may be from the book, but Hopkins isn't an American and even if his embodiment of the role kind of skirts around this rather obvious fact, just this one phrase rings horribly false to me. Other than this, Hopkins is on his usual brilliant form.

“Be careful, he's up there in the window … watching us. He wants to see us together.”

Ann-Margret, on the other hand, has the simplest and possibly the most cloyingly obvious role of all. As gorgeous as she is (there is even the line about her breasts being so beautiful that they belong in the Louvre – which many an ardent adorer from the period would happily concede to), and as much life as she puts into the part of this lonely and disillusioned woman, the actress is saddled with a very badly written character. Oh, Peggy is necessary and vital to the narrative, but Goldman composed her as little more than a bland cog in the machine. Her loveless marriage is much too convenient a hook upon which to hang Corky's infatuation. She is just the girl he gets into bed, who then becomes the girl in jeopardy. The dynamics of her relationship with Corky are thoroughly unconvincing. I mean there is absolutely no way on earth that she would find herself falling for this blast-from-the-past nerd who goes around with his cheeky, lecherous puppet on his arm. I can believe that people, even just sitting around their kitchen table, would momentarily fall under the spell of a good ventriloquist - “How'd you do that?” asks Duke, taken-in by Fats' sheer personality - perhaps even in this day and age of handheld digital tomfoolery and Youtube outrage, but for some reason I just cannot buy that Peg would get anything other than the creeps when Corky comes a-calling. But the mood of the film is weird enough to allow this issue to meander about on the periphery of its own internal logic, for what Goldman and Attenborough have really created here is a fairytale. A dark, emotionally-charged fairytale for grownups. In this milieu, the seclusion of the cabin by the lake, the limited number of protagonists, and the rather lame contrivances that have people turning up out of the blue, disappearing under mysterious circumstances and having no-one come to properly investigate, actually seems to work … provided you don't look too closely, otherwise you will see the holes, the clumsy seams and, ahem, the ventriloquist's lips moving.

“Corky!! You ain't in control!”

Can you imagine if the film was remade today by someone like Rob Zombie? Corky would have this elaborate backstory of an abused childhood, a string of failed relationships, some time spent in a loony-bin – all factors contributing to the madness that we see before us. He would be examined far too much and the secrets and mysteries of his fragmented mind would be laid bare, ruining the genuine “magic” of the tale. The fact that he has simply, and irrevocably, become too mentally linked to Fats is as much a statement about showbiz double-acts and the long-term suffering for one's art - “All the world's a stage!” - that performers all know so well. Corky simply cannot switch off. The parallels to Norman Bates abound, but watching the film now, after a great many years, I was surprised by just how much I was reminded of the Johnny Depp thriller, Secret Window, based on Stephen King's short story – which, of course, came after the Goldman book/screenplay. Once again, we have a famous artist – in Depp's case it is a thriller-writer – who takes himself off to a cabin in the woods, right beside another eerie lake, and undergoes a serious breakdown that results in some unfortunate deaths. Depp makes the character darkly amusing, of course. Hopkins, on the other hand, goes overtly theatrical and hammers home the exasperation of a man who longs more for the “dream” of happiness than the actual thing, itself. Corky's furious attempts to read Peggy's mind with the playing cards, a scene that breaks the barrier of his hidden psychosis a little too glibly to be honest, is a great example of this. Whilst Peggy works hard at giving Corky the vibes that he wants, she also knows that it is just something of childish game and, as such, nothing to become concerned about should it fail. But to Corky it becomes a matter almost of life and death, Hopkins flaring up in abrupt and disturbing anger and almost verbally battering her when the results aren't immediately forthcoming. It is a scene that is misplaced within the narrative, but works well, thanks to Hopkins' frantic impatience and Ann-Margret's genuinely worried reactions.

“Stop the Postman!”

“How? How? With what?”

“Me! Me! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!

The dummy, himself, is a work of blood-curdling art. Fashioned after the appearance of Corky, Fats looks like Hopkins if he was a cheeky little cockney barrow-boy with a perma-grin carved onto his face. Apparently when Hopkins took the prop home with him to help him get into character, he found the presence of his wooden doppelgänger so distressing that the ventriloquist consultant for the film, Dennis Alwood, had to come out to remove it before the agitated actor hurled it off a cliff. And, whether because of this mistrust, or simply by design, you can plainly see that Hopkins, or Corky, is wary of the doll. But it is the voice that nettles the brain even more so than those massive, slowly moving, ever-watchful eyes. Hopkins affects a mock Roddy McDowell voice that is so accurate that you almost expect the scientist-chimpanzee, Cornelius, to come shuffling in stage left. Many of you will already be aware of the unintentional moment when Fats genuinely does seem to come to life. Although it is a mistake made by Alwood (hidden just out of shot) and should really have been cut out – Attenborough liked its unexpected frisson, so he opted to leave the shot unedited – it serves to create that wonderful “did I really see that, or was I just imagining it?” sort of jolt that the film possibly needs more of. The fact that Fats shouldn't have moved without Corky being near him really does make you wonder, which only enhances his creepiness all the more. A marvellous stylistic flourish sees to it that Corky's profile is often lit in such a way that the shadow it casts upon doors or walls resembles Fats' face, fabulously implying that they are one and the same. Nowadays this could be simply done with a CG dressing, but Kemper and Attenborough had to work out angles and lighting that would round off Hopkins' nose and cheeks and widen his face into his own negative-shaded caricature. It's a very effective little trick.

“I don't know how to say this since I haven't got a stomach … but my stomach hurts.”

It is true to say that the film actually loses a lot of its tension during the last act, as Attenborough allows his grip on the final ultimatum to relax a little too much. Just when we are supposed to be on the edge of our seats as yet another damsel in distress moves towards yet another innocent door that is all that stands between her and a murderous madman, the suspense is distilled in favour of unsatisfying tragedy and dark sacrificial romance. But then the film is billed as “A Terrifying Love Story”, so it is worth remembering that there is no evil inherent in the tale, just a murderously raging jealousy.

Aiding the film’s decorative, lavishly produced high prestige feel is the much acclaimed score from Jerry Goldsmith. A definite fan-favourite (and sadly out-of-print at the moment), his Magic music seeks to sift through the two layers of Corky’s personality and to flit between them during passages of lilting unpredictability. The little vaudeville motif on harmonica and piano that indicates Fats is calling the shots is brilliantly inveigled into the score at the creepiest of moments, yet Goldsmith’s jingle is anything but, which almost attempts to put us at our ease – in an act of cannily mischievous deception. This was also another golden age for the composer, after an already tremendous volley of classic scoring in the mid-to-late sixties, with his creativity taking in such masterworks as The Omen, Capricorn One, Logan's Run, The Boys From Brazil, The Swarm and, of course, the big double-header of Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture the year after Magic was released and with which he would boldly take his orchestra where no orchestra had gone before. Magic remains one of his most sought-after compositions, Goldsmith wonderfully evoking the tranquillity of the setting getting torn apart with madness and death, yet keeping his score lush and melodic, full of string-led romance but pulsing with a dark undercurrent of danger. Those few gentle notes on the piano, by the way, would also find their way into the marvellous score from James Horner for Michael Wadleigh's vastly underrated Wolfen.

Magic remains one of those dark, stormy night movies. Overdone, melodramatic and yet totally engrossing, it probably won't trouble your dreams too much, but it certainly delivers a few delicious little shivers along the way. I think that it works extremely well as the first part of a double-bill with Psycho II – indeed I watched them back-to-back in the run-up to Halloween just gone, and the creepy atmosphere they evoked was splendid. Both deal with the crumbling of a haunted mind and of a jealously embittered love-cum-obsession. Both hinge upon the delusions of their anti-heroic central character. And both feature terrific scores from Jerry Goldsmith. Magic is not as good as Psycho II, unfortunately, and I fear that Richard Attenborough's film possibly succeeds now more for reasons of nostalgia. It was one of those great Saturday night movies that was trailered so well during the run-up to its broadcast that you couldn't wait to see it. These days, it can't help but feel quite tame and tepid. But you can't blame one of its leads for being wooden, though!

Fats, then. He's far more terrifying than Lord Charles, but he wouldn't stand a chance against Emu, that's for sure!




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