Monday, October 28, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Magic" (1978)

"Magic" is one of those good movies that, for whatever reason, saw its reputation fade as the years went by. It got good reviews and box office when it came out in 1978, and arrived right around the beginning of the horror film boom of the late '70s and 1980s. But it didn't have the lasting cultural impact of, say, "Halloween," which came out the same year.

It's probably a mistake to toss "Magic" into the horror bin, since it's more a psychological portrait of a deranged mind than a movie whose primary vocation is to scare you. Certainly, director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted his own novel) are not names associated with cheap slasher flicks.

Still, it features a lot of the same tropes of horror films, and what fame it does have is usually framed in terms of Anthony Hopkins' performance as a creepy precursor to that in "Silence of the Lambs." And, of course, the kicker ending is in the classic horror mold -- giving the audience a final thrill while setting up the possibility of a sequel (wisely left unmade).

For the movie Hopkins had to learn a number of difficult skills: magic tricks with cards, coins, and of course ventriloquism. His work with the puppet Fats -- a leering, oversexed, R-rated version of his character's own crushingly repressed id -- is so good, in fact, that we wonder if there wasn't a little help from the sound looping department.

Hopkins' lips and teeth barely seem to move at all, and if it weren't for a slight tremor under the jawline, I'd chalk it up to Hollywood trickery.

Voice has often seemed an important element to Hopkins' body of work, much more so than most actors. The flat, metallic sound he gave Hannibal Lecter reflected the timbre of a man who had barely spoken for more than a decade (mostly because he deemed his few visitors unworthy of his speech). Hopkins is also known to be a really good mimic -- including dubbing the lines of the late Laurence Olivier for the restored footage of "Spartacus."

Here he employs a high, reedy tone that tip-toes right up to the edge of being shrill. For the dummy, it jumps whole hog right into screechy. In this sense the way Fats sounds parallels his looks, which are meant as a crude caricature of his partner's own visage.

Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a failed apprentice magician whose first attempt to appear on stage is a horrible disaster. The story opens with him relating the tale of his bombing in flashback to his dying mentor. The old man advises him that since he lacks anything like charisma or showbiz flair, he needs a gimmick.

Flash to a year later, and Corky is on the verge of hitting it big, playing sold out performances and appearing several times on "the Carson show." He has now incorporated Fats into the act, using him to tell off-color jokes and operate as his own personal court jester, hurling insults and put-downs at the guy working his levers.

His own TV show is in the works, and eel-ish agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) advises him that the only formality is a medical exam. This sends Corky running off into hiding, leaving New York City for his hometown in the Catskills. It appears he knows the doctors would conclude something is wrong with his head, so he doesn't give them a chance.

There he hooks up with his old high school love interest, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), whom he never had the courage to approach when they were youngsters. Now trapped in an unhappy marriage to a brute (Ed Lauter), she at first resists Corky's overtures -- played mostly through Fats' persona, who can flirt and cajole while Corky can't get past a stammer.

Ann-Margret has verve and sass, and seems to exist as a thinking, independent character who isn't just there to be acted upon by the male protagonist. That wasn't always an assured thing in the 1970s (or now).

Attenborough and Goldman tease the audience with the possibility of something supernatural going on with Fats -- that he's actually a sentient being who only plays the part of a ventriloquist's dummy. On a couple of occasions we seem to catch his head moving on its own, but it's always in the corner of the screen and/or out of focus.

Of course, the most glaring evidence is when Fats stabs Peggy Ann's husband to death with a switchblade -- it's shot to suggest that the dummy is wielding the knife. But we can see it's a human hand holding the blade, and after the man falls dead, dragging Fats to the ground with him, the curtain behind where the dummy was sitting parts to reveal Corky.

The point is that while Fats isn't really alive, Corky thinks he is. Their ongoing conversations with each other are actually symptoms of a split personality, or at least a manifestation of Corky's darker instincts. (Of course, this doesn't explain the ending, where Peggy Ann starts talking in a voice similar to Fats', suggesting Corky's delusion has been passed on to her.)

One of the things I most liked about the movie was the distinction Corky makes between "magic" and "tricks." Tricks, to him, are a set-up -- something the magician has arranged in advance with special equipment or a volunteer who's in on the gag. Corky insists that he performs magic, which he defines as simply a skill that has been practiced and honed so that it appears to be extraordinary.

Fats, for his part, tells Peggy Ann that "Corky does magic. I just do tricks," emphasizing the opposition between their warring personalities. In essence Fats is Corky's trick, the prop he uses to get the audience to pay attention to his magic act, which otherwise wouldn't impress them.

I haven't read Goldman's book, but I wonder if it explores the process of how Corky evolved from nobody loser to huge ventriloquism success. My guess is no.

It's merely supposition, but if I were to fill in the blanks for Corky's missing year, I would say he forced himself to sell out his purist magic principles by adopting the cheapest, moldiest carny sideshow trick: the ventriloquist dummy. Self-hatred drove him to endow the object of his parallel success and degradation with seething hatred.

Here's one thing I know: I would've loved to have seen the Corker & Fats television show.

"Magic" is a very good and borderline terrific proto-horror film that showcases Anthony Hopkins at his nervy best. Hopefully the movie can conjure up a new generation of admirers.

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