Magic directed by Richard Attenborough
A good 13 years before scaring the bejeebers out of audiences by portraying a certain fava-bean-and-human-flesh-eating cannibal, Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins was playing a demented wackadoodle really almost as frightening, in the 1978 film Magic. As far as I can tell, Magic was the sixth film to deal with a ventriloquist and his relationship with an alter-ego dummy (not counting the 1954 Danny Kaye COMEDY Knock on Wood). Lon Chaney had starred in The Unholy Three in 1925 and in its remake of 1930; I would love to see both of these supposedly marvelous features one day. I CAN report that the Erich von Stroheim film The Great Gabbo (1929), an early talkie, is simply dreadful; surely one of the top 10 worst that I have seen at the NYC repertory house Film Forum, out of almost 1,400 movies that I’ve caught there over the years. The Michael Redgrave segment in the British film Dead of Night (1945) has been justly celebrated, but this represents just one short section among a half dozen others in this classic horror anthology. And then there is 1964’s Devil Doll, another British horror outing, and a truly freaky little gem that I do recommend highly. Still, despite the fine qualities of those last two pictures named, Magic just might be the finest film to wholly deal with the subject of a ventriloquist gradually going completely bonkers that this viewer has ever seen.
In the film, Hopkins plays the part of Corky Withers, an absolute flop as a magician until he one day hits on the bright idea of incorporating a dummy into his act and becoming a ventriloquist. Flash forward a year, and Corky is poised on the brink of stardom, with a high-powered agent, Ben Greene (a most impressive, pleasingly underplayed performance from Burgess Meredith here), arranging an NBC pilot for him. But Corky panics when he learns of the physical exam that NBC wants him to undergo, and runs away with his dummy, Fats, to the small town in the Catskills where he grew up. There, he stays at a rented cabin on the shore of Lake Melody, run by the love of his youth, Peggy Ann Snow (the yummy Ann-Margret). But a surprise visit from Ben, the beginnings of a romance with Peggy, and the sudden arrival of Peggy’s husband all contribute to a rapidly deteriorating mental state for Corky (and the jealous Fats), and before long, not one but two homicide victims are being dumped into the placid waters of Lake Melody…
Despite the Maltin Movie Guide‘s contention that Magic is a “ludicrous thriller,” this viewer feels that the film is just dynamite, and mainly thanks to a trio of wonderful performances, some sterling directorial choices by Richard Attenborough, and a sparkling and terribly witty screenplay by William Goldman, based on his novel. Hopkins is absolutely fantastic in the lead; simply a marvel to behold as the schizophrenic Corky. Ann-Margret looks stunningly gorgeous here, at age 37, and invests her character (written expressly with the actress in mind) with both charm and pathos. And Burgess Meredith is just wonderful as the shrewd yet compassionate Ben Greene. In the film’s single best scene, Ben walks into Corky’s cabin while the ventriloquist and Fats are ranting at one another, and the look on Greene’s face lets the audience know that he has finally become aware of the true depth of his client’s sickness. Greene then challenges Corky to go just five minutes without talking through his dummy, in an extraordinarily suspenseful follow-up sequence. Of course, Corky is not able to do so, and the look of increasing discomfort on Hopkins’ face, as the seconds tick by, is just priceless. And this is just one terrific scene out of dozens in this gripping tale of insanity.
Other performances to single out include that of Jerry Houser — an actor whose name you might not recognize but whose face was all over 1970s TV — as a hilarious cabbie; Ed Lauter as Peggy’s seemingly brutal but surprisingly sympathetic husband, Duke; and of course the always-fine David Ogden Stiers as an NBC executive. And then there is Fats himself (itself?), an alternately cute and frightening-looking creation who really does seem to be alive at certain points; his is hardly a, um, wooden performance! Unlike Devil Doll, in which the dummy quite clearly has some kind of animate will of its own, in Magic, the filmmakers are rigorously scrupulous in not allowing Fats to speak unless Corky is in the same room, and not allowing him to move unless Corky is within arm’s reach. Thus, it is fairly clear that Corky himself is responsible for all the murder and madness on display. Still, the filmmakers do slip once, when Fats’ eyes seem to move of their own volition; a truly startling moment, to be sure! In one of the many extras on the Dark Sky DVD that Magic currently appears on, Dennis Alwood — the consulting ventriloquist on the film — tells us that this was just “an accident,” but one that the filmmakers decided to leave in. A deliberate blooper, one might call it, that fortunately serves to add even more freakiness — not to mention a tad of uncertainty — to the already outré proceedings.
This Dennis Alwood interview, by the way, is a highly interesting one. In it, he reveals that the film was originally set to star Jack Nicholson, who dropped out because he didn’t want to wear a hairpiece (!), and that Al Pacino, the late Gene Wilder, and Chevy Chase were all considered for the lead, before Attenborough decided on Hopkins (who he had just directed the year before in A Bridge Too Far); he also mentions that Laurence Olivier was slated to play Ben Greene, until he got too sick and had to be replaced. The Magic DVD is a generous package, apropos for a terrific little film. But really, Fats’ comment regarding Peggy’s backside looking as if it were “on ball bearings” is worth the price of admission alone!