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
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