The Illusionist (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
| I am about to compare this film
to the short story from which it sprang. In so
doing, I will spoil many (though not all) of the
film's secrets. Although I will not reveal the
ending, you may reasonably infer it from other
points of comparison. I caution you not to read
these words unless you have seen the movie, because
the film is a thriller and it is a
superlative film experience, and
therefore should be watched without the knowledge of
Enough caution. Read on at your own peril.
Steven Millhauser is probably the greatest writer you never heard of. Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for a 1997 novel, but the people who evaluate such things feel that his true genius is exhibited in his mastery of shorter forms of fiction. As his Wikipedia entry notes:
"It was for his stories that Millhauser became most admired; immaculately written, curiously vivid, they trod on fantastic boards in a manner reminiscent of Poe or Borges, but with a distinctively American voice. In them, mechanical cowboys at penny arcades came to life; curious amusement parks, museums, or catacombs beckoned with secret passageways and walking automata; dreamers dreamed dreams and children flew out their windows at night on magic carpets."
In other words, he won the Pulitzer Fucking Prize for one of his lesser works!
And still you haven't heard of him. Don't feel embarrassed by having failed at cultural literacy. Even the people who run bookstores have never heard of him. Before beginning this article, I went to Barnes and Noble to pick up The Barnum Museum, the collection of short stories which includes "Eisenheim the Illusionist." They didn't have it. After they did some research, they told me it is out of print. They had precisely one copy of Martin Dressler, the Pulitzer winner. That exceeded by one the number of copies they had of his other books.
You think it's odd that bookstores ignore a Pulitzer Prize winner? Hell, Millhauser has barely heard of himself. In the spring of 1997, when he was first notified of his Pulitzer, he thought the call was a hoax. For all of the esteem he enjoys in the world of the literati, Millhauser lives so far from the NY/LA scene, the media glare, and the world of publishing gossip, that he honestly had no idea he was being considered, or even that he could be considered. He has neither the gift nor the inclination for schmoozing or self-promotion. He lives a quiet life in Saratoga Springs (population 26,000) in upstate New York, just north of Albany, where he teaches at tiny Skidmore College (enrollment: 2,200), and raises his family.
The source material for this film, Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," takes place in Vienna during the late 19th century, and follows the career path of a cabinetmaker's son who aspired to become the greatest of all stage magicians. He began with simple variants of established tricks, then started to develop his own illusions. Not content with mere illusion, he added art to his presentations and ever more spectacular showmanship. Feeling a need to best himself continually, he started to build his show around darker themes, and received the ultimate compliment from his audiences - they became convinced that he actually possessed supernatural powers. Eisenheim still wanted to keep improving, but had gone far beyond anything his colleagues had ever done, and had convinced people that mere tricks were reality. He wondered how to keep raising the bar of astonishment since he had already made the impossible seem conventional.
Just when he seemed to be losing his motivation, new inspiration came into Eisenheim's life in the form of a challenge from another illusionist who arrived in Vienna with great fanfare and boasted that he was superior even to the great Eisenheim. Passauer was a worthy adversary, but Eisenheim, his spirit re-energized by competition, bested each attempt from the upstart. Finally, the frustrated Passauer announced that his final show in Vienna would be truly unbeatable. As the evening progressed, he eventually made every single item on stage disappear, then stripped off a mask to reveal that he was, in fact, Eisenheim!
How could such a marvelous tale go any further? How could Eisenheim continue to best himself? Only one possibility remained.
Eisenheim had already made himself disappear, but only the version of himself represented by Passauer. The only way such a master illusionist, one with a need to improve constantly, could end his career would be to make every trace of himself disappear forever. He created a conflict with the local police, then appeared on stage one night expecting to be arrested during his performance. As the chief inspector reached out to apprehend his suspect, his hands passed through the magician, whose very image proved to be just another illusion.
The conclusion is meant to be ambiguous. Nobody knew how or why the great illusionist had deceived them, but he stayed in character. Eisenheim was never to be seen again.
If I have done even a passable job of describing the story, you can see that it is one helluva good yarn! If Rod Serling were still alive, and could manage words as well as he managed plots, he would be Steven Millhauser. It seems to me that this story could have been made into a great movie exactly as Millhauser wrote it, but that's not the film writer/director Neil Burger chose to create. Instead, he used Millhauser's basic storyline as the engine to drive a rather conventional thriller. The crown prince of Austria-Hungary (Rufus Sewell) emerges as the story's antagonist when the illusionist (Edward Norton) becomes his rival for the hand of a beautiful duchess (Jessica Biel). The illusionist and the dutchess plan to run off together, but determine that to be impossible because the jealous prince would follow them to the ends of the earth with revenge in his heart. The romantic triangle disintegrates when the duchess is killed and all clues point to the crown prince as the murderer. A common-born police inspector (Paul Giamatti) tries to solve the murder, but ends up torn between his innate integrity and the fact that he is beholden to the crown prince for all of his privileges and station in life. I'll tell you no more. With my summary of the short story and my observation that the film is a thriller, you are already able to infer all of the movie's surprises, so I've already said too much.
Paul Giamatti turns in an astounding performance, doing something which seems almost impossible for a little, flabby guy with a funny, rubbery face and a high squeaky voice: he creates gravitas. Speaking in the lowest ranges of his voice, mostly in whispers, he calls up images of the screen's most powerful character actors like Orson Welles. Edward Norton is suitably rational and aloof in the lead. You already know that Giamatti and Norton can act, but I'll bet that Jessica Biel will surprise you with the transformation she has made from the fourteen-year-old girl who first caught our eyes in 7th Heaven. It's no surprise that she's beautiful, or that you can get lost in her eyes, but you may be amazed by how easily she conveys elegance and breeding. The locations are almost as beautiful as Biel, and fooled the hell out of me. Some of you may know that I lived in Vienna for quite some time, and I came out of the theater convinced that The Illusionist had been filmed there. Shows you what I know! The entire film was lensed in the Czech Republic.
I must be honest and say that I truly wish that the film had stayed completely faithful to the original story, and had attempted to be a dazzlingly original movie rather than a conventional movie in a period disguise. I believe that the politics, the romance, and the murder mystery were unnecessary. Having gotten that off my chest, let me add that I still love this movie. The writer/director's interpretation is an engaging film with mass audience appeal. It's not without flaws, and it was hampered by a budget too small for its ambitions, but it is vastly entertaining, whip-smart, and beautifully performed.
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