Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.