MAGIC (1976) by William Goldman

Goldman-Magic-panWilliam 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 ChallengeTuesday’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:

No Way To Treat a Lady (1964) – reviewed here
Marathon Man (1974)
Heat (1985; UK title Edged Weapons) – reviewed here
Brothers (1986)

Masquerade (1965) – co-screenwriter
Harper (1966)
The Hot Rock (1972) – reviewed here
All the President’s Men (1976)
Misery (1990)
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

Magic (1978)
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:


***** (3.5 fedora tips)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, New York, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, William Goldman and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to MAGIC (1976) by William Goldman

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I have a fondness for this film. Maybe it’s just Ann-Margret, but who cares. I really should give the source novel a read, though, now that you’ve made me curious about that twist. Fine look, Sergio.

    • The book is terrific Mike (and even has a sneaky reference to the wondrous Ann-Margret) – you will get the twist very early because you’ve seen the film, but the way it’s handled will, I think, impress you. And she is great in this – let’s have a clip:

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Oh, so well done at reviewing this without giving away spoilers! I couldn’t have come near to it – I really couldn’t! You’re absolutely right that at its heart it’s a story of characters and relationships. Yes, it’s a suspense story but not the horror that it was (unfortunately) billed as being. Of course, hard to know how to ‘sell’ a film like that…

  3. tracybham says:

    Very interesting. I would love to try both the book and the movie. I kind of have a thing against ventriloquist dummies in movies. But still worth a try.

    • Thanks TracyK, I hope you give this one a go – and if you can, read the book first!

      • tracybham says:

        I usually do read the book first. I am sure I would do that here, because I probably would not watch the movie if there wasn’t a book …

        I want to read some of his other books (other than Princess Bride, which I read and loved), but it will be a while with so many other books on my shelves and in my piles…

        Soon we are going to rewatch Harper with the commentary by William Goldman. Looking forward to that, too.

  4. neer says:

    Wow! Another new to me author. Next year I am definitely going to read more from the ‘silver vintage’ category. Thanks Sergio.

  5. Colin says:

    Well done – not an easy movie to write up without giving away important developments. I thought it was a reasonably good film but I can see how the marketing difficulties may have led to its not doing as well as it should – viewers do get the feeling they’re in for a horror movie when it’s not that at all. Never read the book but I’m quite intrigued now.

    • Thanks Colin – the first 100 pages of the book are basically completely excised and include a ton of flashbacks to the early life of Corky and Pegyy Ann, which are reduced to next-to-nothing in the movie (quite sensibly in terms of moviemaking, but you lose a lot all the same). In many ways it might have been better suited to a longer form TV adaptation … Book is very well crafted and well worth a read, but obviously you don’t get the same jolt on page 113 that most newbies had when they realise the extent to which Goldman had pulled a fast one in his narration.

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I remember this one very well and it is shocking to see how young Hopkins was in it. At the time, it didn’t feel that way. I saw a lot of Goldman over the years. A solid body of work and each distinctive.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the film. Both are exceptional. Creepy, chilling and suspenseful. The book is unputdownable towards the end.There are some similarities with Psycho.
    I agree that the scene where _______has to be quiet for 5 minutes is one of the best.
    I also agree that it is better to read the book first as otherwise one will not get the “jolt” (on page 113 of your copy but on page 111 of my copy.)
    I would give it 4 fedora tips (both book and film).

  8. Yvette says:

    A ventriloquist’s dummy is scary in and of itself, Sergio. Even Charlie McCarthy made me leery way back when. Though I like William Goldman’s work I’ve never seen this movie and probably won’t – simply because of the dummy. I’m SUCH a chicken! But I do like Ann-Margret. I met her a couple of times once upon a time and she was the nicest person you could imagine. Such a sweetheart to work with.

    P.S. In that first pix you post, the dummy sort of looks like Jude Law. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for another terrific review. I do enjoy reading about all these films that I’m not familiar with and will likely never see. Why is that do you suppose? Well, maybe because you write so well about things you obviously enjoy.

    • That dummy is suppsoed to look like Hopkins though!!! Thanks for being so supportive Yvette – you’re a peach 🙂 I am so envious of your having met Ann-Margret – and how great that she was as nice as she seemed – that’s cheered me right up!

  9. Sergio, I didn’t know William Goldman had written “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” leave alone authored the book and scripted the film “Magic.” In fact, I have never read this author of many genres; hopefully, not for long. Neither have I seen a young Hopkins in many films. It makes a difference when you see him this young and then past his youth and as an old man as I’m now used to.

  10. Pingback: 2014 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  11. kinneret says:

    Thanks for posting this blog– and I am glad I discovered your site. I enjoyed the movie which I always wanted to see as a child (I had my own ventriloquist doll), but the book is marvelous.

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