In a couple of weeks the magic heist thriller Now You See Me makes its way to DVD and blu-ray. In all honesty I really didn’t like the film. By way of graphical analogy…
…is to this.
is to this…
But I don’t like to bring something down without building something up, so here are my top five magic films that I think are definately closer to a Heath Ledger Joker than a Bat suit nipple.
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Perhaps the most stunning use of 3D so far, this film travels back to the birth of cinema and its origins in stage magic. Back to a time when illusion shows and short films were played on the same bill, with film being thought of at the time as another form of magic and theatrical spectacle. Ben Kingsley plays the brilliant French stage magician and pioneer of film special effects, George Mellies. “The Film Wizard” would recreate the tricks of the stage on using cuts and overlays.
It can’t be overestimated how magical this must have seemed to audiences back then. Although far from a biographical pic, Hugo it is still a very nice tribute to “The Father of Special Effects”.
4. The Mad Magician
The casting of Vincent Price as a murderous stage magician is too great to pass by. Presented in 3D and capitalising on the success of his recent 3D horror hit, House of Wax, this follow-up lacks the sophistication of its predecessor but makes up for it with a delicious premise and another thrilling performance from Price encompassing the mephistophelian image of magicians of the time. The intimidating buzz saw illusion was still very much in the zeitgeist, having been popularised by Blackstone.
This film poses the question that was surely on every audience member’s mind: what if the trick was real?
3. A Hauting We Will Go
Any Laurel and Hardy film is worth a watch, but this one stands out for magicians as featuring one of the great illusionists of all time, Dante, in a feature role. Playing himself, of course. Laurel and Hardy get enlisted to help in Dante’s show and then set about causing chaos. The film is very funny but is also a great record of Dante’s grand show.
It also features a brilliant sketch where the duo try to pull off the legendary Indian Rope Trick.
2. Penn and Teller Get Killed
Obscenely underrated, this cult film has never even had a proper DVD release. Written by Penn and Teller and made just as they were taking off, the film begins with Penn Jillette (again, they are playing themselves) going on a live talk show and announcing that life would be more fun if someone was trying to kill him. Cue the pyscho games. It’s established early on that Penn and Teller love playing gloriously elaborate and sick practical jokes on each other, so much of the rest of the fun comes from trying to decide what is real and what is another joke.
The smart money says this film was most definately the inspiration for David Fincher’s The Game, which has a similar premise. On one final strange note, the film is directed by Arthur Penn, the Academy Award-nominated director of classics like Bonnie and Clyde. Maybe it was just because of the last name?
And number 1? Well no big surprise here.
1. The Prestige
The director of the Dark Knight trilogy, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and David Bowie as Tesla! What is there not to love? One of the films that I really think is even better than the book, it presents the fascinating idea of the magician living the trick. Set in London during the Golden Age of Magic at the end of the nineteenth century, the film brilliantly captures the feel of the time. The story and characters are not disimillar to accounts of real magicians back then in terms of paranoia. For example, an old Chinese magician magically produces a huge fish bowl. It is then revealed he fakes injury whenever in public to draw attention away from the great strength that would be needed to conceal the bowl under his robes. The story of the real man this character is based on is even weirder. Chung Ling Soo was a turn-of-the-century magician who travelled the world as “The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer”. It was only after his death that it was exposed that Soo was actually an American, William Robinson. Whenever in public he kept up the pretense, going to the extent of hiring an interpreter to translate his faux-Chinese in to English.
It’s the attention to detail, masterful direction, utterly intriguing story and great performances that make this film stand way out from all the rest.
So there we go. If there’s a film you think I’ve missed or a great portrayal of a magician you have in mind let me know. And before you do, please, please don’t send me this…
Oh I know you were about to. I can read minds.
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