Magic (1978) stands out in Richard Attenborough’s filmography, as a rare venture into small-scale psychological horror from a director better known for his sweeping epics. Adapted for the screen by William Goldman from his earlier successful novel, it tells the story of timid magician Charles “Corky” Withers (Anthony Hopkins). Corky plays the variety clubs in search of success, but his bumbling card tricks fail to impress and is met with derision from the audience. Having repeatedly bombed, in desperation he realises that it’s high time to try a new gimmick.
Learning the art of ventriloquism, Corky introduces the world to Fats – a foul-mouthed dummy in a grotesque caricature of his own likeness. From across the room, Fats makes an amusing first appearance as a heckler in the crowd, just as Corky’s magic seems to go typically awry on stage. The new double act becomes a roaring success, with Corky finding new confidence through his sarcastic alter-ego.
Among the laughing spectators, wily agent Ben Greene can spot enormous potential – wonderfully played by Burgess Meredith, bringing some gravitas to the film as he chomps on an impossibly large cigar. Superstardom beckons, if only Corky is willing to take the necessary medical exam to prove he can cope. Knowing that this will expose his fragile mental state, the sudden pressure is too much for the shy magician, who flees the bustling big city and heads back to the seclusion of his hometown.
The troubled Corky tracks down Peggy (a wasted Ann Marget), his old high school sweetheart, hoping to finally muster enough faith in himself to win her over – with a little help from his new sidekick. The problem is that in the passing years she has settled down with Duke (Ed Lauter), in a relationship that’s far from happy, yet he’s not about to walk away. The more malevolent side to Corky’s nature starts to take over, as he battles to keep the murderous urges of Fats under control. The film is given a boost by a classy Jerry Goldsmith score, providing a full orchestral accompaniment to the romantic scenes, then switching to a simple harmonica to mark the ominous appearance of Fats.
There are some highly effective moments in the film, like when Ben finally confronts Corky and, to prove he is sick, challenges him to make Fats shut up for five minutes. He can’t of course - there’s no pulling the wool of over old Ben's eyes, he knows that Corky is genuinely crazy and it’s not just a charade. Despite this, the camera often teasingly lingers on the dummy while Corky is out of arms reach, encouraging us to watch closely just in case its eyes swivel chillingly on their own accord, or the mouth changes to form that sinister leer.
Magic provided an early opportunity for Hopkins to show what he could do in a lead role, having previously been lost on occasions among a large starry ensemble, notably in Attenborough’s Young Winston (1972) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). He certainly grabs that opportunity here, regrettably going completely overboard in later scenes. While it’s easily not among the gifted actor’s best performances, he’s still entertaining to watch – clearly trying to make the material work but hamming it up in the process.
The film is not nearly as accomplished as the classic horror portmanteau Dead of Night (1945), in which Michael Redgrave’s unhinged ventriloquist believes that his dummy is alive, with spine-tingling results. Magic is more of a tragic love story, a character study that still manages to be moderately disturbing. Fans of James Wan's Dead Silence might be disappointed with the lower scare quotient on offer here though. Attenborough didn’t seem particularly adept working in this genre, fumbling some of the suspense sequences. Any sufferers of Automatonophobia will nevertheless be watching through their fingers.
Magic makes its UK debut on blu-ray from Second Sight Films. The image, presented in the original ratio of 1.85:1, appears significantly sharper compared to earlier editions on other formats. Even early scenes that take place in a smoky club are much improved in this HD presentation. The transfer shows no signs of damage, pleasingly free of any obvious specks or lines. There’s an appreciable amount of fine detail throughout, such as textures in clothing, right down to the beads of sweat on Corky’s face. If the colour palette still looks quite drab, that was completely intentional, in keeping with the tone of the film.
The original mono soundtrack is retained, with the audio having no detectable issues. Dialogue is well-defined throughout and Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds perfectly atmospheric.
The film retains its 15 certificate.
English subtitles for the hearing impaired have been included.
All the extras are ported over from much earlier disc releases, including the long OOP double disc DVD from Anchor Bay UK. The lack of any fresh material is a missed opportunity, especially since the selection provided is a little lacklustre.
Screenwriting for Dummies: William Goldman interview (15:26): The writer provides some anecdotes about the film’s production.
Archive Anthony Hopkins interview (6:17): In this short interview made for Spanish television to promote Magic, the actor explains how he learnt to become a ventriloquist for the role.
Victor Kemper Interview (11:25): The veteran cinematographer of over 50 films talks about his work.
Ann-Margret make-up test (1:21): A pointless clip shows the actress flicking her head as though she’s auditioning for a hairspray commercial.
Fats and Friends: A History of Ventriloquism (26:55): By far the best of the extras is this fascinating featurette produced by Severin’s Carl Daft and David Gregory. The film’s consultant Dennis Alwood takes us on a journey through the history of ventriloquism, discussing legendary figures in the business over the years such as Fred Russell, Edgar Bergen and Jimmy Nelson.
Anthony Hopkins archive radio interview (3:22): This short audio piece plays over outtakes from the film, revealing a little insight into Hopkin’s background.
Trailer (2:12), TV Spots (2:21) & Radio Spots: The highly effective original advertising, featuring a creepy close-up of Fat’s face, was pulled from TV for scaring children!
Second Sight's sleeve design is also very eye-catching and better than what has been used in the past.