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Category:    Home > Reviews > Thriller > Horror > Magic (1978/Dark Sky/MPI DVD)

Magic (1978)

 

Picture: B    Sound: B    Extras: B+    Film: A-

 

 

Richard Attenborough's Magic (1978) is a terrific suspense-thriller that's been long overdue for a proper release on DVD -- it's been near the top of my most-wanted list for years now.  Thanks to Dark Sky Films, the wait finally comes to an end on April 25, 2006, when the Magic DVD arrives in stores. Dark Sky put a lot of effort into the new high-definition transfer, supervised by the Magic's own cinematographer, Victor J. Kemper, and the result is a disc of unusually high quality for a film of its age. But more on the outstanding transfer later.

 

Magic is as good a variation of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as I can remember.  As Norman Bates was a schizophrenic dominated by the spirit of his dead mother, the main character in Magic, a ventriloquist named Corky (Anthony Hopkins), is a schizophrenic taken over by his dummy.

 

When we first meet the timid Corky, he bombs while doing card tricks at a nightclub amateur night. After failing to win the audience's attention, Corky explodes and berates them, which immediately establishes him as a meek man who's not without an explosive temper.

 

As Attenborough cuts to a few years later, Corky is now a successful ventriloquist whose alter ego is an acid-tongued dummy named Fats. Corky's manager, a cigar-chomping old-pro named Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), has just arranged for Corky and Fats to film a sitcom pilot for one of the three major networks. But here's where things begin to unravel: Corky is willing to risk losing his big chance by refusing to submit to a standard health checkup the network requires. Greene tries his best to get around the physical, but the network insists, and Corky won't budge.

 

Corky, you see, has lost his mind and worries a doctor will immediately spot his psychosis. Unable to handle the growing pressure exerted by a confounded Greene, Corky takes a cab out of town, telling no one where he's going, and arrives at a quiet lakeside inn somewhere in the Catskills that's run by Corky's high-school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (the luscious Ann-Margret), and her alcoholic, neglectful husband, Duke (Ed Lauter).

 

Corky was infatuated with Peggy Ann from afar in high school, but was too shy and fearful of rejection to ever make a move. Now with some success (Corky and Fats have appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), he feels confident enough to approach Peggy Ann like never before, with the help of Fats, of course. But when Corky and Peggy Ann fall in love, behind the back of an intimidating Duke, Fats gets jealous in the same way as Norman Bates' mother did anytime a female took Norman's attention away from her. The rest of Magic chronicles Corky's psychological tug of war between his yearning for Peggy Ann and the increasingly deranged side of him that is Fats -- the film's only flaw is that Peggy Ann is conveniently too dim to ever realize Corky is deeply troubled in spite of some very erratic behavior he displays early on while showing her a card trick

 

From a screenplay by William Goldman, based on his novel of the same name, Magic is a very well-crafted thriller for adults (remember those?) that unfolds with one dramatically tense scene after another. You won't forget a scene where Greene the agent challenges Corky to refrain from talking through Fats for just five minutes, and what transpires thereafter. 

 

In the movie that established him with American audiences, Hopkins is superb, perfectly masking Corky's psychological torment behind an uncomfortably placid demeanor.  Jerry Goldsmith contributes a great, creepy score that enhances the tension, while Kemper's cinematography perfectly captures the film's creepy mood without ever calling attention to itself. Goldman is no stranger to writing taut thrillers (No Way to Treat A Lady, Marathon Man, Misery), but the surprise here is the sharp direction of Attenborough, an actor/filmmaker more renowned for dramas (Gandhi, Chaplin, Shadowlands) than thrillers. His skillful building of suspense and exploiting the underlying tension in every scene makes Magic an underrated classic in the same boat with Brian De Palma's The Fury (another suspense-thriller also distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1978 that did moderate business, but deserved to do at least twice as much at the box office).

 

Dark Sky's new All-Region DVD version of Magic is a highly recommended buy to anybody who's already a fan of the film as well as anyone who hasn't seen it. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer benefits from very good picture quality with better than usual 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono. The softness of the video blacks in some shots is the only noticeable flaw. The disc is also loaded with extras, including that memorable trailer and TV spot simply of the camera panning in on Fats as he recites a poem -- allegedly this particular TV spot disturbed too many New York City-area children and was pulled after just one airing. There's also an informative recently-recorded interview with Kemper, who talks about how and why he shot the film as he did; a featurette with real-life ventriloquist Dennis Alwood, who helped teach Hopkins before and during production; plus TV and radio interviews with Hopkins circa 1978, radio spots, an Ann-Margret makeup test and a photo gallery. The only thing missing is a feature-length audio commentary by one or more surviving members of the cast and crew.

 

 

- Chuck O'Leary


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