Monday, October 15, 2012

Movie Monday: Houdini

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1953 bio-pic Houdini!

Paramount went all out for this portrait of the legendary magician, springing for color photography and big stars:
The film opens at a circus, where young Bess (Janet Leigh) is with her girlfriends, enjoying the attractions. When they see the wild beast man, Bess pipes up, decrying the cruelty with which he is treated by the carnival barker.

Later, Bess wanders away from her friends, and makes the wild beast man's acquaintance:
Of course, the wild beast man isn't a real "missing link"; rather, he's Harry Houdini, an aspiring magician who appears in disguise for the opportunity to go on stage with his illusions, which don't attract much of a crowd:
Bess departs, but when she comes back to the circus, it's clear that Houdini is smitten with her. As he lays strapped to a table, headed for certain death via buzzsaw, all he can do is look longingly at Bess, as she watches, horrified, from the crowd:
Eventually Houdini and Bess get together, and get married, living in a small apartment with his mother. Bess becomes his on-stage assistant, but it doesn't take long before she tires of the grind--the endless travel, the low pay, and the rough crowds. At one point an audience member hurls something at Houdini, only for the magician to reappear, as if by magic, in the crowd, where he exacts some revenge on the heckler:
Eventually Bess convinces Harry to quit the life, and he gets a job at a safe factory, where he is bored, working on the assembly line. The only thing that keeps him involved is the work of another man at the factory, an old hand who brags of crafting uncrackable safes. Houdini offers to be locked inside, just to see if he can escape, but is gruffly rebuffed.

On Halloween Night, Houdini and Bess go to dinner at a fancy hotel, which just happens to be holding a banquet for a club of magicians. An offer is made for five members of the audience to try and escape from unbeatable strait-jackets. Bess tries, and fails, to keep her husband in his seat, but of course destiny calls:
As the four other magicians struggle, flopping around the stage, Houdini stays still. He focuses on a glowing ball dangling from chandelier, and begins to sweat profusely. Bess looks concerned, as done the head magician. Seconds tick by, and Houdini frees himself from the strait-jacket, almost as if he was in a trance. The prize is two tickets to Europe, but they come with a warning: Houdini is told by the head magician to stop pursuing this new line of illusions; that it might be dangerous.

Houdini ignores this, and after a brief fight he and Bess go to Europe. Houdini tries to track down a master magician named Von Schweiger. He is told by the man's assistant, Otto (Torin Thatcher) that the great man died just a few days earlier. Otto decides to become Houdini's assistant and travel with him and Bess.

During one series of sold-out shows, Houdini is challenged to break out of an English jail cell, considered impossible to escape from. He takes up the challenge, and while he makes his escape, we see Bess pretend to be Houdini on stage, giving the real man time to get to the stage, stunning everyone:
They return to America, where Houdini's fame grows. His tricks grow ever more dangerous, like being dropped into the icy waters of the Detroit River while being locked in a box. Things go wrong when a cable snaps, dropping him into the river before he is ready, and Houdini barely escapes with his life, lost beneath the ice, desperately looking for a hole to the surface.

When reunited with Bess, he tells her the only way he found his way out was following the voice of his mother--who he learns, died at almost that exact same moment, many miles away. It's at this point Houdini becomes obsessed with communicating with "the other side", which of course would be the ultimate trick.

Two years pass (where, strangely, Houdini and Bess seemed to have aged by more than a decade), and in that time we learn through a reporter that all Houdini has been doing, in lieu of stage appearances, is trying to find someone who can truly communicate with the dead. They go to visit a medium, who seems to be the real thing:
Of course, it doesn't take long (mere moments, in fact) for Houdini to reveal the woman to be a fraud--all the ghostly goings-on are faked. Houdini's quest continues.

He returns to performing, looking to perfect the "Water Torture" escape, which worries Bess to no end. One night, on Halloween, Houdini feels ill, suffering from appendicitis. He ignores the pain, and goes on with the show--but something goes wrong, and Otto must free Houdini from the tank:
Bess rushes to the stage, where Houdini, about to die, promises that, if he can, he will come back. As Bess sobs, the camera pans on a poster of The Great Houdini. The End.

Houdini is a lot of fun; it's fairly well acted--Curtis is a bit of a cipher as Houdini, but Leigh is great, and they have a lot of chemistry (no surprise, they were a real life couple off screen when this movie was made). The film is nice to look at, and gives us the inside scoop on how Houdini pulled off some of his tricks (though not all; a nice touch). Historically, it takes a lot of liberties with real story; Houdini didn't die on stage--it was that infamous punch to the gut, combined with the appendicitis, that slowly killed him a few days later. But dying on stage is very dramatic, and I guess the movie makers thought it was just too good to resist, ending the movie like it began--on stage.

Other than the seance scene, the movie doesn't do a whole lot, visually, with the whole world of magic. The film was directed by George Marshall, who did a lot of "B" comedies and thrillers, and (later) TV work; it's kind of a shame Paramount didn't get someone with a little more flair to tackle this story--Orson Welles comes to mind.

Still, Houdini is a solid classic Hollywood biopic; it's kind of amazing there's never been another version of this story done in the sixty years since the film came out; it's seems like such ripe subject matter. Until that time, though, Houdini does the job.

1 comment:

John Cox said...

Nice review. Thank you. And I agree with you. We need a new HOUDINI movie.

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