In the years following his death, the legend of Harry Houdini was, like all legends, far more interesting than the truth. But as decades passed and the legend grew, it now feels reversed, the truth far more interesting than the legend. Just think: which grabs your attention more, that Houdini remains the greatest escape artist, or that he was actually a fairly boring showman, lacking any real stage presence, outright terrible when performing your basic magic tricks? Perhaps a sign of an age where we prefer the warts-and-all treatment in discussions of past heroes, this idea of a man who overcame such potentially fatal flaws to become someone whose very name is synonymous with magic and escape artistry is far more compelling than just another rehash of the star's greatest hits.
So when watching the 1953 biopic "Houdini," we have to nudge all of that to a back corner of our minds. This film, directed by George Marshall and written by Philip Yordan, is a fluffy, sometimes even comical presentation of Houdini the legend, highlighting several key escapes and playing up his fabled interest in the paranormal; while the script is credited as being based on Harold Kellock's 1928 biography/diary collection "Houdini: His Life Story," there's zero interest in reality. It's the equivalent of a George Washington biography that's more interested in wooden teeth and cherry trees than in any of that "revolution" or "president" stuff.
But while the side-stepping of just about every important fact about the real Houdini is disappointing, there's enough whimsy on display to make the film a pleasant charmer. This is thanks mainly to the star power of Tony Curtis, who plays the title role, and Janet Leigh, who plays his wife, Bess. The two actors had married two years earlier and were an "it" couple at the time of the film's release; such chemistry helps feed the story's more romantic aspects.
The film opens at a dime sideshow, where Harry is working as both magician and, using a flimsy mask and make-up, the "wild man." (Absent is any mention of his early years or his life under birth name Ehrich Weiss - the film tosses us right into the years of Houdini the showman.) He's instantly stricken by the beauty of audience member Bess. Two later chance meetings leads him to sweep her off her feet, and they're quickly married, moving in with Harry's mother (Angela Clarke). To help sell the legend, we're told that on their wedding night, Harry, acting upon sudden inspiration, practiced a new trick by sawing Bess in half, rather than participate in other newlywed celebration. If you'll buy that, you're in the right frame of mind to accept the quaint horsepuckey that follows.
Jumping as the script often does, wildly across the Houdinis' life (pausing to note how he worked - where else? - in a safe factory for a while), we soon find ourselves in Germany, where, while on a grand European tour, the magician faces trial for promoting ideas of supernatural powers. His defense: to prove there's no witchcraft, only pure human strength and skill, Houdini agrees to open any safe the court will provide. He does (from the inside!), and charges are dropped. Like almost everything else in this picture, this sequence has a slim basis in fact (Houdini was on trial, but for bribery, and he did open a safe to get off the hook, although from the outside, and because, as he later admitted, the judge forgot to actually lock the darn thing) but chooses to celebrate the urban legends (or simply concoct new ones) surrounding such incidents. Indeed, the film is credited for playing a large part in the spreading of the legend of Houdini.
Scenes detailing Houdini's interest in the occult stick more to the truth, although Marshall and his cast depict these moments with the same verve as the more fictionalized sequences. Following the death of his mother, Houdini turned to spiritualism in hopes of soothing his loss, only to discover every medium he encountered was a fraud. Thus began Houdini's side career as professional debunker, an angle which, as with everything else, the movie treats rather shallowly. Gone is any chance for Curtis to go deep with his performance, and there's little emotional weight given to this portion of Houdini's life.
The screenplay is more interested in getting back to the daring escapes, which Marshall recreates with plenty of excitement (if too much editing trickery, which kinda spoils the fun). These scenes are very thrilling in an over-the-top way, and it's a hoot to watch Curtis reenact the suspended straightjacket escape, or make a goof out of Houdini's bathtub preparation for lengthy ice water submersion.
We end, as expected, with Houdini's death, although the film stays true to its nature and supplies a completely made-up exit for the magician. Why show peritonitis when a grand death caused by a failed on-stage escape is more heroic?
I hadn't seen "Houdini" in ages, and revisiting the film, I was once again thrilled by its showboating manner and its gleeful reenactments. But I also found myself repeatedly thinking of another showbiz biography, Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon." Both films offer wildly fictionalized interpretations of famous tricksters; Forman's film admits (and delights in) such shenanigans, while Marshall's movie, despite the cheery demeanor, plays the fiction straight. When Houdini first discovers he's been had after a fraudulent séance, the cast plays it all very by-the-numbers; compare that to a scene late in "Moon," when Andy Kaufman catches the deceit of a faith healer, only to offer up a sad smile - sorry for being had, but also tickled by encountering a fellow charlatan.
"Houdini" lacks that kind of internal magic. There's no sense of personality here, no understanding of character. It's simply a straightforward point by point account of famous moments in Houdini's career, never mind the subtext. To an extent, it works, as the film achieves exactly what it sets out to accomplish. But nothing more. "Houdini" is nifty entertainment, and who can deny such a success? As a biopic, however, even one that lies to us at every turn, it only goes so far, and never allows us to get to the real heart of its subject.
"Houdini" arrives on disc as part of Legend Films' recent collection of vintage Paramount titles.
Video & Audio
There doesn't seem to have been any effort to clean up "Houdini" here. The colors are rather faded in this transfer, which dulls the bold Technicolor look of the piece just enough to rob it of its visual pop. Softness and grain also abound. Presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack, while unimpressive, comes across cleanly and clearly. No subtitles are provided; the disc supports closed captioning.
The film's original trailer is the only extra.
While there's enough charm and energy on display to make "Houdini" a good film despite its multiple flaws, there's not much here that demands repeat viewing, especially considering the bland presentation on DVD. Rent It.