Friday, January 24, 2014

Is The Prestige the Greatest Movie About Magic and Magicians?

I recently stumbled across a list of the Top Ten Movies about Magic and Magicians. At the top of the list were these two: The Illusionist and The Prestige. Interestingly, both films came out in theaters at roughly the same time, emulating to some extent the rivalry between the two magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) in The Prestige.

Teller, in his intro to Harry Houdini’s The Right Way to Do Wrong, notes that magicians in the old vaudeville era were not protected from having the tricks stolen and there were intense rivalries between them. Our modern world has copyright protections for writers and ASCAP for musicians. If someone else performs their songs, today’s songwriters get royalties.

In the book itself Houdini devotes one chapter to his encounter with an escape artist named Kleppini who claimed to have bested the great Houdini. Houdini goes into detail telling how he outwitted the fraud Kleppini and defended his reputation as the greatest. Essentially he allowed Kleppini to believe he knew the secret to a pair of French Letter Cuffs which are opened by dialing in the correct word. Kleppini was in ecstasy at the idea of proving his prowess because he knew the secret word. But as Houdini affixed the cuffs he changed the secret word, and humiliated the fellow who hours later gave up in despair. The secret word was F-R-A-U-D.

In other words, the rivalry between Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) mirrors the competitive nature of those showmen of old.

At the beginning of the film Angier and Borden are friends who work as assistants to a great magician. Angier’s wife is the beautiful distraction who adds spice to the performance. An accident occurs and his wife drowns onstage resulting in a deep bitterness taking root in Angier as he believes the loss of his wife was Borden’s fault. The two break apart, pursue separate careers as rival magicians.

The cast features other stars including Michael Caine an Angier’s manager, Scarlet Johansson, Rebecca Hall and a superbly fascinating casting of David Bowie as Tesla. The reproduction of that historical period is flawless and all the technical gadgetry involved in turning a man into a magician is insightful.

The story is dark, however, and the first time I saw it I was put off by it. The sweep of the story is complex and the intensity of the rivalry keeps it from being a “fun” movie to watch. Nevertheless, it is rich with an insider’s glimpse to the kinds of things that really happened back in the day.

Jim Steinmeyer begins The Last Greatest Magician, about the life of Howard Thurston, with a story of Houdini himself being called from the audience to go up on stage to see a levitating woman. Thurston trusted Houdini with an inside angle on this amazing trick knowing that his respected peer and somewhat rival would not steal or reveal it. In The Prestige, similar events occur, but the more bitter nature of the rivalry has different consequences.

There is a section of the story in which Michael Caine dissuades Angier from doing tricks using guns, warning that something can go wrong. For example, if you try to catch a bullet with your teeth using a blank instead of a bullet, an audience member can stick a button in the barrel and put it through your head. Alfred Borden likes gun tricks and says he can catch a bullet out of the air when it is fired. He would, of course, have palmed the bullet when the shooter from the audience takes aim. Unfortunately, his rival Angier does exactly this and blows off two of his fingers.

Houdini, in his book The Right Way To Do Wrong tells stories about the various feats and failures of contemporaries. One is a man who had a bulletproof jacket that he would don and invite a volunteer from the audience to shoot him in the chest. Unfortunately, a marksman from the audience decided to shoot just below the jacket, nailing him in the groin. He died shortly after from the wound. This incident and the film's rearranging the details all serve to affirm that the story is rooted in more truth than most audiences might suppose.  

Greatest film about magicians? Its only rival is probably The Illusionist, which I aim to see again soon, a film that I found more satisfying in the end. Nevertheless, this is a superb film, and worthy of seeing yet again.

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