William Goldman is probably known best for The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, both of which he adapted into successful movies. His suspense novel Magic was a hit in its day too, though did less well when he reworked it for the screen. There are specific reasons for this, which I will try to discuss here without giving away too many of the author’s tricks. We begin with a man in conflict with himself, a magician looking for a new gimmick …
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here)
“I got maybe the best magician in fifty years matched with the first X-rated dummy on the block. Eat your heart out.”
All his adult life Charles – known by everyone as ‘Corky – has wanted to be a magician, to be an entertainer. After years spent developing his skills for closeup card illusion and many, many setbacks, he finally finds a fresh gimmick by incorporating a ventriloquist’s dummy into his act. This brings humour to a style of magic that is on the wane but is also a method to misdirect the audience. After making a name for himself, and on the cusp of signing a major TV contract, Corky has a crisis of confidence and heads to his home town where miraculously he re-ignites his passion for Peggy Ann Snow, the girl he had a crush on in high school some 15 years before. Will he be able to start again with Peggy and finally find the self-esteem to become a success? There is more to it of course and events ultimately escalate into a series of confrontations and a deadly showdown in Peggy’s lakeside cabin that will leave several people dead.
Corky certainly has some issues he has to work through, but he is enormously sympathetic and we really would like him to succeed and move out of the shadow of his disappointed father, his absent mother and his more successful brother. I can’t help thinking that Hitchcock would have loved this material – along with humour, suspense and a sweet love story, there are also plenty of nasty surprises that one suspects the director of Frenzy, Psycho and Spellbound would have greatly enjoyed. Some of the set pieces, while very well done, are fairly traditional such as when the murderer worries if the body they put at the bottom of the lake will stay there when they are unexpectedly taken fishing near the some place. But other sequences are more unusual and subtler in approach. Perhaps the greatest single sequence, because it is ultimately very sad, is when one character asks another to just keep quiet for five minutes – no big deal, right? You’d be wrong and it is brilliantly handled, genuinely suspenseful and both nasty and heartbreaking. Now that’s a neat trick and Goldman deserves tremendous credit for taking a premise we are very familiar with – a ventriloquist who thinks that people only like him when he is with his dummy and not for himself – and crafting a chilling and exciting story that is scary and melancholy too. There is also plenty of humour (the dummy has a really licked and profane mouth on him):
“If brains were dynamite you couldn’t blow your nose”
Those who have read the novel, or seen the film, will realise quite how oblique I have been in my brief summary, but this is at heart a restricted chamber piece – one with only five major characters and it would be a shame to spoil any of it.
Goldman is one of my favourite authors, as I may have mentioned a few times before (for instance, here). An Oscar-winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, he famously said of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” As a novelist he’s tried all kinds of genres (fantasy, private eye, war, bildungsroman, police procedural, espionage) but his recurring themes of sibling rivalry and parental abandonment are front and centre in Magic. In adapting the novel for the screen, he had to jettison perhaps its biggest surprise, one that comes about 100 pages in and which just couldn’t be translated to the screen without some major cheating. On the other hand the rest of the book has been transferred with great fidelity, with most of the dialogue and situations transferred pretty much as they were in the novel.
“Magic’s to entertain – you don’t take it seriously. Don’t look for more than’s there.”
Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison were both attached to the project before Richard Attenborough took over as director, doing great work with his cast. Anthony Hopkins was probably his favourite actor and he does a great job here, convincing both as the neurotic Corky and as the successful stage performer (though most of the ventriloquism was in fact the work of Dennis Alwood), while Ann-Margret is perfect in a role that was literally written for her (though this does mean they are both a good 10 tears older than the characters in the book). Burgess Meredith (in a role apparently earmarked for Olivier at one stage, which would have been a terrible idea) does well as Corky’s loving agent; and the always underrated Ed Lauter brings much to what might be a two-dimensional role as Peggy’s philandering failure of a husband.
“A pro never forgets his good lines, kid”
If the film didn’t become a big hit, despite the fine ensemble and the many surprises, it’s probably because it was unclear to audiences just what kind of film this was going to be – a deliberate and necessary choice to avoid spoilers, but a marketing nightmare. Some think of it as a kind of horror movie when looking at the advertising, but there is nothing supernatural here. It’s a suspense thriller first and foremost, but one rooted in the reality of the characters – which is to say, not a story with a happy ending perhaps, but one that should easily keep you desperate to find out what will happen next. The book manages to do more with the material that the film can through Goldman’s dexterity, but sadly it’s all too easy to see why this autumnal and dark tale didn’t fare all that well at the box office – none the less, both offer thrills and chills and always treat the audience with intelligence and are well worth some of your time. The film also boasts a fine score by Jerry Goldsmith, who in an inspired touch uses the inhalation and exhalations of a harmonica to match Corky’s ventriloquism,
I previously profiled Goldman’s work here. If you are interested in his many other excursions into mystery and suspense, you should check out his following novels and films:
Masquerade (1965) – co-screenwriter
The Hot Rock (1972) – reviewed here
All the President’s Men (1976)
Year of the Comet (1992)
The Chamber (1996) – co-screenwriter
Absolute Power (1997)
The General’s Daughter (1999) – co-screenwriter
DVD Availability: This one is easy to get on DVD round the world and on Blu-ray in the US (the above still are taken from that release, with acknowledgement and special thanks to DVD Beaver). The Blu-ray includes interviews (from a 2006 DVD release) with Goldman, cinematographer Victor J Kemper and best of all Dennis Alwood, who not only dishes the dirt on the production but also brings a wealth of knowledge about the history of ventriloquism and its representation on screen
Director: Richard Attenborough
Producer: Joseph E. Levine
Screenplay: William Goldman
Cinematography: Victor J Kemper
Art Direction: Terence Marsh
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Lauter
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘country house’ category: