Monday, February 2, 2009

Misdirection


The 30-second TV spot for 1978’s MAGIC, featuring a famously creepy looking ventriloquist’s dummy, was apparently traumatizing for a lot of kids. I remember seeing the ad at the time, but don’t remember it causing me any sleepless nights. The strange thing about looking at it now is that the voice of the dummy sounds different than it does in my memory. But I guess that’s what memory does. I also have a very, very vague recollection of the film playing at the National Theater (now the site of the Good Morning America studio) when I was taken with my family downtown on Thanksgiving morning to see the annual Macy’s parade and we would have stood right around there. Beats me how I remember this, but research tells me the film did indeed play at that theater (Years later I saw a BACK TO THE FUTURE marathon there). So I guess it’s kind of a surprise that I never wound up actually seeing MAGIC until now. So much for the mystique it had over me.


When we first meet aspiring magician Corky (Anthony Hopkins) he has experienced a disastrous set at a local nightclub’s amateur night. It’s not that he’s bad at magic, but he has no onstage personality and his ailing mentor who he calls Merlin tells him that he just needs to find himself “some charm”. When he next meet Corky, it’s a year later and he’s back playing the same club but apparently having found that charm he’s now a big success; he still does the magic act, only now it’s alongside his foul-mouthed dummy Fats. His cigar-chomping agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) is very optimistic that the big time is near and has a whole plan in motion (“the same kind of low-key buildup we gave Steve Martin last year”) but just as NBC wants to sign a deal for Corky to star in his own special, possibly leading to a series, the magician flips out over being forced to take a medical exam by the network. He disappears, heading to the depressed Catskills town where he grew up where he rents a cottage from his former high-school crush, the now-unhappily married Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). The two hit it off and, as the romance Corky once dreamed of is coming true, the voice of Fats that is in his own head speaks to him constantly, gradually becoming more and more possessive of Corky.


The most surprising thing for me about MAGIC, directed by Richard Attenborough four years before GANDHI, was that for a film whose greatest notoriety was apparently a commercial that managed to scare kids (it’s also used on the DVD menu), it’s actually kind of a depressing experience. The lead character isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic in any way and anything that gets us interested in him feels like it’s brought to the table by Hopkins, not by the script. The characters in this story feel like they’re approaching middle-age and seem pretty depressed about their situation—actually, Ann-Margret says that she hasn’t seen Hopkins in fifteen years and if she’s referring to the end of high school that means that the characters are younger than I am. Great, thanks very much for bumming me out. The structure of the script feels rather odd at first, seeming to hop through the first few sequences not giving us much info about the character or even how much time is passing before it settles down to its primary location. I fully admit that when I sat down to watch it I knew next to nothing about the plot beyond the dummy from the commercial and the presence of Anthony Hopkins, so when we reached the house in the Catskills and I realized that this is where we were going to stay I couldn’t help but think, “So is this going to be the whole movie?” The first ten or so minutes of the film which culminate in Fats proclaiming “We’re gonna be a star…” is actually the most interesting part of the film and feels like it promises something more than what turns out to be basically a four character piece (five if you count Fats—there is, of course, the expected ambiguity involving him). Frankly, the rundown setting of the Catskills just becomes kind of a downer by a certain point. The film was written by William Goldman from his own novel, which I haven’t read, but I wonder if the inner turmoil between Corky and Fats may have just played better on the page. Richard Attenborough also doesn’t seem the right choice for this sort of movie—at the least, he doesn’t seem to have any affinity for this sort of material and any sensitivity he brings to the drama feels at times misplaced like the “thriller” element is not having enough attention paid to it.


The dummy known as Fats is pretty creepy, I’ll give it that much. Frankly, it comes off as so creepy that it’s surprising no one in the movie ever comes out and says as much. Do we really believe that Corky, with zero stage presence, is such a sensation with Fats that NBC is thinking about basing an entire series around him (for that matter, I think variety shows were dying out by this point). “He’s just as cute as he is on the tube!” screams Ann-Margret when she first lays eyes on him and all I could think was, really? He’s actually supposed to be cute? To give it credit, the film at least takes its time with its characters (some might think too much, although this wasn’t what bothered me), but it never feels quite right, maybe because Richard Attenborough just isn’t the right person for this sort of material. It’s not that a blood bath is needed but maybe it just needed a little more punch—when characters drink from a bottle of J&B it just made me think of certain sleazy Italian films and I wished that this movie could loosen up a little as well. For a horror movie with an R rating it’s pretty mild—just about the most shocking thing about the entire film may just be the brief Ann-Margret nudity we get during one bedroom scene. Ann-Margret topless? Let’s hear it for the 70s! You never know what you’re going to find.


Hopkins is certainly forceful in the part—it certainly isn’t an issue of him not having enough presence--but without much of a trace of normalcy it never feels like there’s anything to connect with. Ann-Margret isn’t bad but is possibly miscast and feels a little lost at the whims of the story—how many movies did the actress make after around 1975 where it feels like her appearance is wasted? Watching Burgess Meredith constantly fiddle with his cigar (“Take two, they’re big.”) made me wonder if they went to George Burns for the part first—if that’s the case, I’m going to say that they wound up with the right guy. Meredith gives the best, most seemingly effortless performance here, becoming more layered than the hammy agent stereotype you think he’s going to be at first and a nice reminder of how good an actor he was. The always reliable Ed Lauter turns up late in the film as Ann-Margret’s bully of a husband. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is given a novel twist by having the sound of a harmonica represent the whims of Fats and a few of the more lyrical passages seem to anticipate his later themes for TWILIGHT ZONE – THE MOVIE (this reminds me that one of the most famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” of course involved a dummy, but never mind).


The tagline on the MAGIC poster is “A Terrifying Love Story” and it feels like there’s not enough of the first half of that declaration and the second half of it just plays out as a little misguided. And for all its emphasis on the love story, the preoccupations with the nature of magic, illusion and the oft-repeated phrase “misdirection” throughout never feel as focused as they should be. There are things in there that I liked but I repeatedly found myself thinking that I should have been responding to it more than I actually was. That commercial, on the other hand, is still pretty effective and a nice throwback to when a talking dummy still had the power to actually scare people. It’s not actually in the movie, but it’s still the most effective part of it.

9 comments:

cat said...

I've been trying to see this movie for a while now...

Mr. Peel said...

You should see it, maybe you'll like it better than me! Why do I get the feeling that this will turn up at the Silent Movie or the New Beverly at Midnight one of these days?

The Driveindude said...

Because you know it will!

Griff said...

It is a dour, sad little movie, and I like your observation about its primary (and depressing) Catskills setting -- "so is this going to be the whole movie?"

Some thoughts:

Goldman's novel has a major advantage over the film -- it readily persuades the reader that Corky could indeed become a big star with Ben's careful handling. The best part of the book is the beginning; there's much rewarding background in the book about Corky's years of hard work and preparation to become a skilled close-up magician. Goldman explains the nature of "misdirection" in a fascinating way that made me want to try to master card tricks. [I couldn't, but in trying, I learned great respect for anyone who can.] The shy, colorless Corky ultimately learns that while he's a brilliant magician, he can't even give away his talents to the masses. He only finds salable personality and charm when he picks up the dummy. Corky is still basically a quiet introvert, but he becomes a sensation with the profane, manic Fats -- Lenny Bruce with sawdust in his veins -- sitting on his lap.

Goldman establishes this all pretty well. Even though Fats' material seems mostly crude, abusive stuff on paper, the writer makes us accept the character's great, novel appeal to audiences, and the reader is pleased for Corky and his success. Except, of course, that the guy seems, well, a little off...

Making this setup work in the movie is another story, and nobody involved is quite up to the truly imposing task. Attenborough, Goldman, Hopkins and the really grotesque Fats (off-putting even for this sub-genre of film) never come close to making me believe that Corky could be a smash as a hip, X-rated ventriloquist. The material just isn't there, and neither is the delivery. Hopkins tries hard. His American accent for Corky is okay, but his ventriloquist's voice for Fats is genuinely grating -- it makes you want to flee the theatre. The scenes with Corky performing to explosive response from audiences are painful to watch; Olivier was funnier in THE ENTERTAINER. All that really comes across is the "little off..." part.

While we see relatively little of Corky performing in the movie, the film's failure to make plausible his on-the-cusp-of-stardom status is a real dramatic problem. The basic seriousness and realistic tone of the picture -- it never flirts with any "this is just a scary story/genre piece" trappings -- makes it difficult to accept Corky's success at face value. We need to be able to buy into it. [A Hammer film, say, wouldn't have had this problem.] This undermines all the conflict in the story, and even partly torpedoes the character of Ben. We can't understand why this smart, sharp agent would believe so in his client's prospects. That said, Meredith, brilliantly channeling Swifty Lazar, is the best thing in the movie. The moment late in the film when he looks at the way over-the-bend Corky -- really looks at him -- and says quietly (approximately), "Boy, we'd better get you some help." is exquisite. At any rate, when Corky heads to the Catskills... yes, we do know that this going to be the whole movie.

This leaves us with the "little off..." part. Which Attenborough and Goldman aren't quite sure how to handle. Some of this can be chalked up to a reluctance to embrace the genre -- these guys don't really want to walk in the footprints of DEVIL DOLL, the Twilight Zone's "The Dummy," or even the Michael Redgrave episode of DEAD OF NIGHT. That's admirable, I guess, but in trying to avoid those tropes, the team doesn't really come up with anything new. Hopkins's Corky is in a way even more colorless than the character in the novel -- he's just not very interesting and neither is the annoying Fats. When they begin their inner battle, it's hard to root for Corky. The turmoil isn't terribly well dramatized by Goldman, either. As a director, Attenborough seems incapable of any expressionism that could give life to the struggle. They just don't want to make that kind of movie. So, we're not in on this fight -- we're just glumly watching it and trying to keep score.

A recurring plot detail in Goldman's fiction involves protagonists encountering a former love (or crush) later in life and trying to rekindle (or start) an affair. This usually ends badly, but the novelist imbues such scenes with both passion and poignancy. This is handled particularly well in MAGIC; Corky's anticipation and longing for Peggy is realistically evoked, and the scenes in which it briefly looks as though the couple might make a go of it are among the best written of the novel. These don't work nearly so well in the movie, though Hopkins and Ann-Margret do give it a try.

Attenborough doesn't manage to clearly separate for us Corky's love and longing for Peggy from his growing psychosis. The character's feelings for her seem tainted, when they are really the only healthy impulses Corky has left. The ultimate sense of sadness and loss of the story is almost pointless unless we see Corky and Peggy genuinely connect. The movie needs to show their deep passion, but the film mostly backs away from this. Dozens of films of the '70s gratuitously feature long, erotic lovemaking scenes; here's a movie that desperately requires such a scene, and it gets demure and perfunctory treatment. Peggy is Corky's last chance, and (however briefly), she sees Corky as her last chance as well -- we should see that in their coupling, and know that this is the best moment in Corky's life. Even if he is a little off...

Anonymous said...

It's always nice to read a review that also comments on the score!

My first "contact" with MAGIC was by listening to Goldsmith's score. While some of it is quite good (and scary) quite a lot of it is somehow... bland.

Which pretty much can be said about the movie!

On another note (regarding Goldsmith), they showed THE SALAMANDER (1982) on television which is also a rather mediocre movie - BUT the score is most excellent!

And you can tell by some of its elements (e.g. the choir) that FINAL CONFLICT was just around the corner.

Unfortunately, no release on CD to this day. :(

ZAR.

Mr. Peel said...

I should put a giant note at the top of my post. Don't read what I wrote--read the comment left by Griff! What you wrote really sheds some light on things and makes the novel sound much, much better. Thanks very much for that terrific read about this film which probably really is "sad and depressing".

Anonymous--

I'm a big, big Goldsmith fan. His score for MAGIC isn't one of his best but at least had the harmomica to distinguish it. You're right, it doesn't help elevate the movie very much and neither the score or film are ultimately very memorable.

Anonymous said...

> I'm a big, big Goldsmith fan.

When I met the first "real" soundtrack collector in 1986 he quickly infected me with Goldsmith - especially THE FINAL CONFLICT remains one of my favorites to this day.

I still remember asking him anxiously, if Goldsmith was also a very old composer and would die soon. And he just laughed heartily and said that Jerry was only in his (healthy) sixties and would most certainly stay with us for a while longer.

Another one of my favourites is DAMNATION ALLEY. Unfortunately, as long as the synth overdubs are still missing, there will be no complete release of that one.

Although, I wonder, if so many other scores get a re-recording, why not that one? William Stromberg for example could pull it off! (Just listen to FAHRENHEIT 451 or his very own composition for TRINITY AND BEYOND.)

ZAR.

Arbogast said...

"No soap."

That line always stuck with me. And Ann-Margret's nip.

You're right - this is depressing when it should be shocking and revelatory.

But I got to see Ann-Margret's nip, so I can't kick.

Mr. Peel said...

"No Soap"?? That's the line you remember? I guess if you rememember that much about the movie (plus Ann-Margaret) then it had some kind of effect on you. I'll try to work the phrase into conversation and see if the same confusion results.