Magic (1978) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
WARNING: ALMOST TOTAL SPOILERS
Corky (Tony Hopkins) would be one of the best magicians in the world if his rating were to be based entirely on technical skills. Unfortunately, he is a timid man, entirely devoid of showmanship. His meek personality is totally unsuited to the early stages of a career in show business - the part where a newcomer works in clubs, competing for the attention of a half-soused crowd.
He comes upon a solution. He alters his act from a pure magic show to a combination of magic and ventriloquism. This shift allows him to use the dummy to do the things he cannot do - the raunchy patter and insult humor which are necessary to interact with a club crowd. The dummy named "Fats" is assigned to do all the offensive material, while Corky stays in character simply as Corky, the shy and soft-spoken guy who is more offended than anyone by his partner's shenanigans. The problem which develops is that his offstage personality bifurcates as dramatically as seen onstage, and he becomes utterly dependent on Fats to have a conversation with anyone. The mental illness gradually becomes worse until he is having long conversations with Fats in which he seems to think there is another person in the room. When his secret is finally uncovered by his agent (Burgess Meredith, again playing Mickie from Rocky, except that his lines say "Cork" instead of "Rock"), he deteriorates so completely that the Corky side of his personality is following orders from Fats to commit murder.
As of this morning, I hadn't seen this film since it was released in 1978, when I was in my (gasp!) twenties. Its reputation stays completely under the radar, and you rarely hear anyone mention it, but as I popped it in the DVD player, I was thinking "Jeez, back then I thought this was a good movie, and my friends thought so too." Well, guess what? It IS a good movie. Unlike so many other fondly-remembered films from the 70s which now seem like complete crap when separated from the pervasive 70s mindset, Magic is not defined by its pandering to rebellious 70s counter-culturism, its parading of laughably dated but then-hip 70s fashions, nor its gimmicky cinema verite filmmaking. This movie could be re-released today and it would seem to have been made now and would still seem to be taking place in the present, except for the presence of actors now dead or much older, and/or a few minor references like "I saw you on Carson."
It was directed with elegance and the right attention to dramatic tension, which is a bit surprising in light of the fact that the director was Richard Attenborough, who was best known for stodgy big-cast films like Gandhi and A Bridge Too Far. (By the way, I am writing this in 2006, and Attenborough has a new film in the pipeline!) The film is a Hitchcock clone, and a good one. Imagine the relationship between shy, sensitive Norman Bates and his mother, and you'll have a very good mental picture of the relationship between Corky and Fats. As in a typical Hitchcock film, there is no supernatural component to the mystery, and everything can be explained by events which are really possible in the natural universe. Fats is not an evil figure like Chuckie, but simply a hunk of wood that is injected with an imagined personality by its owner. The audience is easily able to relate to Fats as a real character in the film, and not simply an inert object in the shadows like Mama Bates. Give credit to Tony Hopkins, who actually provided the voice for Fats; to the real puppeteer, who controlled the dummy; and to director Attenborough, who found many spooky ways to insert the dummy into the scenes.
Besides the remarkable character of Fats, the element which really makes the film work is Attenborough's ability to create nail-biting tension in various scenes. Corky buries his first murder victim at the bottom of a small lake. The next day he is obligated to go fishing in that lake, and his partner seems to be dragging in something of great magnitude ... a human body, perhaps? Similar situations arise throughout the second half of the movie, as Corky is forced to improvise various explanations in order to cover up the trail left by his sloppy, impulsive murder. Why is there a Rolls Royce parked just outside of a humble country lodge? What is the story behind the mysterious dead body that just washed up nearby? Why is there fresh blood on some of Corky's possessions? In each case, Corky must relieve the dramatic tension by improvising a satisfactory explanation or by committing additional crimes. Each stressful situation drives Corky further into madness, until ... ?
Despite all my praise for Attenborough's work here, I have to say that he made one very glaring error. There is one scene where Fats rolls his eyes while Hopkins is elsewhere, having just walked away from the couch. The flub occurred because the man manipulating Fats was behind the couch and could not determine precisely when Hopkins walked away. Should be no big deal. Catch it in dailies and re-shoot the scene, right? Wrong. Although Attenborough was informed of the mistake by several people, including Dennis Alwood, the ventriloquist who was operating the Fats figure and was embarrassed by his mistake, Sir Richard refused to re-shoot and left the scene in. Of course, it completely destroys the integrity of the film, because it proves with irrefutable certainty that Fats actually possessed an independent life, and was not just a hunk of wood. It incorrectly injects a supernatural component into a story which should have none, and thus it creates the possibility that Corky is not really acting insane at all when he talks to Fats, because Fats can live independent of Corky. Imagine if Hitchcock had allowed Mother Bates to get up and walk around while Norman was occupied elsewhere. For the sake of those of us who like our mysteries tight, we simply have to pretend that we are seeing the scene through Corky's eyes, and that he imagines the eye movement by Fats.
Setting aside that persnickety quibble, Magic is one of the best Hitchcock films not actually directed by Hitchcock.
Sidebar: William Goldman
The author of the source novel, as well as the screenplay, is William Goldman, who has been responsible for as many excellent movies as anyone in the second half of the twentieth century. Magic is an excellent film, but Goldman has received a writing credit on 17 better ones, per IMDb:
He won two Oscars (Butch Cassidy, All the President's Men) as well as two Edgars for two completely different films (Magic, Marathon Man). A fifth and sixth film (Misery, The Princess Bride) were nominated for Saturns. The top three films above are ranked in the all-time top 250 at IMDb. If ever a man deserved a lifetime achievement award for the quality and quantity of his contribution to cinema, it is Mr. Bill Goldman of Highland Park, Illinois.
Oh, yeah, one more plus about Magic. There is a romantic sub-plot in which Corky returns to his home town to woo his high school sweetheart. They go to bed together. We see her breasts. The sweetheart is played by Ann-Margret.
... they're real ... and they're spectacular!
Bonus: You probably know that Ann-Margret also did a nude scene in 1971's Carnal Knowledge, but you may not remember 1970's CC and Company. You should, although not for the quality of the movie. CC and Company starred no less distinguished a Royal Shakespearian thespian than the legendary Sir Broadway Joseph William Namath, making his film debut only a year after his unlikely but pre-guaranteed triumph over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
The DVD has one excellent feature, Fats and Friends, which is a very long interview with the ventriloquist who manipulated the Fats figure for this film (David Alwood). It is both his personal reminiscences about the filming as well as his own version of the history of ventriloquism in the electronic era. More than just a talking head piece, it intercuts scenes from the movie, scenes from other films, scenes of ventriloquists performing, and various memorabilia like movie posters and stills. This feature alone is worth the price of the rental and, coupled with a solid transfer of the movie, makes this a DVD worth owning.
Among the revelations in the interview:
A completely different cast and crew was supposed to make the film. Producer Joseph E Levine had asked the legendary Edgar Bergen to do the ventriloquism consulting, but he demurred and passed Levine on to David Alwood. At that time, the director was slated to be Norman Jewison, the old agent was to be played by the legendary Laurence Olivier, and the star was to be a legend-in-waiting, Jack Nicholson. Olivier had to withdraw because of ill health, but Nicholson withdrew from the project for a crazy reason - he refused to wear a hairpiece that would make his hairline match the dummy's!
There are other interesting features as well:
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