Though seriously marred by one key scene***, Magic (1978) is an impressively intelligent adaptation of that generally disreputable sub-subgenre of horror movies centering on unbalanced ventriloquists and their domineering dummies. The Michael Redgrave segment in Dead of Night (1945) is by far the most famous of these screen adaptations, though at least two episodes of "Twilight Zone" were built around the same idea and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" did a great variation on the story in "The Glass Eye," a 1957 episode starring Jessica Tandy and Tom Conway. Magic, like its conflicted magician/ventriloquist, seems torn between wanting to do one kind of film while conforming to modern horror movie conventions.
Corky (Anthony Hopkins) is a badly introverted, third-rate magician who begins overcoming a crippling shyness only after his mentor, Merlin (E.J. Andre) is on his deathbed, pleading with Corky to make a go of it. When Corky bombs, badly, Merlin advises Corky to "find yourself some charm." Sometime later, Corky inexplicably is a phenomenal success at the very same nightclub, where his high-powered agent, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith, giving a superb performance), invites NBC executive Todson (David Ogden Stiers) to catch Corky's act. In a neat scripting idea, Corky launches into the very same lame act that had bombed before, and soon Corky begins sparring with an unseen heckler in the audience. Surprise-surprise, the heckler turns out to be Fats, Corky's foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy (unrecognizably voiced by Hopkins), and this combination - milquetoast magician and abrasive, crudely humorous dummy - goes over like gangbusters. Todson is suitably impressed, and soon NBC offers Corky a pilot special.
There's just one catch: the network wants Corky to submit to a medical exam, and to Ben's surprise "nice kid" Corky adamantly refuses. Trying to cope with this problem and newfound fame, Corky sneaks back to his hometown in the Catskills. After finding his old house boarded up and his family grave unattended, he rents a lakeside cabin from Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), a former high school classmate he had been in love with, but who eventually married real estate man Duke (Ed Lauter). With Peggy Ann's marriage on the rocks, she and Corky have an affair, particularly after the two appear to have some sort of psychic connection and Corky can read her mind.
Roughly 90% of Magic's script is smart and adult, and director Richard Attenborough, cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, and composer Jerry Goldsmith especially (to say nothing of the cast) further embellish the picture with intelligent choices. William Goldman's novel told its story from Fats' point-of-view, an interesting conceit, but Goldman's script takes a much different approach. In the film, except for one scene Fats is not presented as living creature, as is usually the case with such stories, but rather the means by which Corky has been able to function as a performer, a psychological crutch that eventually permeates his everyday existence. In other words, the dummy isn't alive - instead, Corky suffers from some kind of schizophrenia/multiple-personality disorder with this second personality manifesting itself through Fats. However, this splitting of personalities is so complete that onscreen it's all rather ambiguous. Fats seems alive to everyone around him, including Corky, even when the dummy is sitting shock-still in a chair.
Since Fats is really all in Corky's mind, the dummy isn't suppose to move on its own, yet the skill of the filmmaking is such that audiences watching the film have their eyes glued on Fats, waiting for an eyelid to twitch, an arm to raise itself up.
Unfortunately, one scene does exactly that, with Fats himself coming to life and committing a murder all by himself when Corky is occupied elsewhere. It's the only scene in the entire film that contradicts this interpretation of the material (another cheats so slightly as to not really count), suggesting that it may have been imposed on the filmmakers by producers (or whomever) wanting to deliver the kind of monster-dummy horror scenes audiences, it was assumed, were expecting.
The problem, of course, is that with this decision everything else goes out the window, which may account for the generally hostile reaction of critics. If Fats really is alive than Corky is nothing more than a poor schmucky victim, with all his psychological baggage - the core of the film and its main character - in the end being merely tangential to Fats' diabolical plotting.
Take it out, however, and the film instantly becomes far more interesting. One excellent scene, for instance, has Ben stumble upon Corky in the middle of his ravings with Fats, and at once Ben realizes his talented client is in fact deeply disturbed. He challenges Corky's mental state with a simple test: get through five minutes without the dummy. As Corky tries to bluff his way through it, agonizing all the way while trying to appear nonchalant, Attenborough does something quite smart: he keeps the camera on Corky with Fats just out of frame, so that we in the audience are thrown off-balance much like Corky: we want the camera to stay on Fats, waiting for him to speak. Attenborough and Kemper employ visual tricks like this throughout the picture; in one sense it's the same kind of "misdirection" that Ben tells Todson is the key to all magic.
Video & Audio
Magic is presented in a near-perfect 16:9 widescreen transfer at 1.77:1. The image is clean with accurate use of its muted color design in a sharp, artifact-free image. The audio is extremely good for Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and optional English subtitles are included. (One complaint: They should've italicized Fats' dialogue, though.)
The excellent supplements are headlined by Fats & Friends, a 26-minute featurette that begins with ventriloquist Dennis Alwood's interesting history and overview of the art, followed by fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about the production, which had been intended for director Norman Jewison with Jack Nicholson in Hopkins' part and Laurence Olivier in Meredith's (which may account for Meredith's Marathon Man-like look). Fats himself turns up, with "his own" anecdotes about the film.
An Interview with Victor J. Kemper is just that, running 12 minutes and packed with good info on his contributions. An Anthony Hopkins Radio Interview, about three minutes, finds the actor talking like Martin Scorsese hyped-up on caffeine, and plays against bloopers, alternate takes, and trims from the picture. An Ann-Margret Makeup Test is little more than silent footage of the actress looking at the camera, though few will complain about this.
Like everything above, the Theatrical Trailer is 16:9 widescreen, though the good Photo Gallery is full-frame.
Magic achieves much more than its generally credited with, and except for that nagging, almost ruinous scene, is a smart, subtle thriller.
*** - Update/Correction (includes spoiler)
Since this review first appeared, several readers have generously taken the time to write suggesting I take a second look at the scene in question.
I did and lo and behold they were absolutely right. (Which can be interpreted as another credit to the film's effectiveness, I suppose.)
Special thanks to readers Chris, David, and Kathy for pointing out the particulars of this scene. Interestingly, everyone who took the time to write in also praised the film highly, and agreed it was vastly underrated.
...I humbly stand corrected.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.