Anthony Hopkins works like a saint in Magic; so much so that it seems somehow blasphemous to observe that he isn’t really very good. This is not entirely his fault, I hasten to add, but a lethal combination of hopeless miscasting and a misconceived character result in what can only be described as a sadly wasted effort. Much the same can be said of the film itself and the inevitable reaction is one of bewilderment.
Corky (Hopkins) is a magician whose act is spiced up through his talents as a ventriloquist. His foul-mouthed dummy, Fats, becomes hugely popular and seems set to become a huge star, with the help of big-time agent Ben Green (Meredith). But Corky has problems; a recurring sense of insecurity and inadequacy; a nagging feeling of failure; and an unhealthily close relationship with Fats. So, having refused to take the medical that the TV Networks insist on, he drives out into the Catskill Mountains where he grew up, in order to hide from the pressures of showbiz, and find Peg (Ann-Margret), the girl he loved from afar when he was a teenage boy. But when he rekindles his love for her, and finds it returned, it becomes clear that Fats is far more than simply a dummy – and when Fats gets jealous, all hell starts to break loose.
Magic should have been a sure-fire proposition as a horror-thriller. There’s something inherently creepy about ventriloquist’s dummies, a sinister aspect which was well exploited in films such as The Great Gabbo and Dead of Night. William Goldman’s original novel, upon which he based his script, walks a fine line between the scary and the ridiculous and just about succeeds in keeping its balance, aided immeasurably by a clever little narrative device that delays the revelation that the narrator is the dummy. The film can’t utilise this of course and instead plods a rather more obvious path of watching Corky slowly crack up under the influence of his divided personality. There's nothing wrong with that in itself; it provides a fine opportunity for a closely observed character study. But there is a major problem; the film makes it clear much too early on that Corky is fundamentally insane, needing the dummy to complete his personality and unable to function without it. If your leading character is mad from the beginning, how can his mental breakdown be convincingly turned into a central issue?
The best solution to this would have been to add more ambiguity to Corky’s character or perhaps even follow the lead of the title and suggest that there may be something supernatural about Fats which is totally beyond Corky’s control. An actor such as Jeff Bridges might have been able to charm us into Corky’s world, to make us see that success as a performer and success as a human being are two different things. But Anthony Hopkins simply can’t do this. Getting a reasonably convincing accent is a bonus. But he doesn’t have the style or bearing of a variety performer and when he’s on stage, he looks neurotic rather than turned on by the adrenaline of the live performance. He begins the film as a sweaty, twitching, nervous wreck, the very look of whom screams failure, and doesn’t have anywhere to go except over the top – which he does. He loses pint after pint of sweat and throws himself about in an effort to involve us in the non-issue of Corky’s state of mind. It’s fascinating to watch and it’s a bravura effort but it’s grandstanding or, to be cruel, hamming, rather than acting. Hopkins can get inside characters like few other actors – he managed brilliantly with Nixon, Hannibal Lector and Stevens in Remains of the Day - but he never seems to get inside Corky because the character is all on the surface. He’s totally miscast and he seems to know it.
The only times that the performance works are when Hopkins is allowed to do something small and detailed. There’s a marvellous scene when Ben Green comes to the cabin in the Catskills and tells Corky that he has to sit for five minutes without speaking through Fats. The tension here is unbearable because Hopkins is completely in the moment and he acts so well with Burgess Meredith. When the scene breaks, the suspense evaporates and it’s disappointing because for a few moments, we’ve been held by the character. When he starts screaming and throwing himself around again, it’s back to business as usual.
What’s interesting is that the same thing can be said for Richard Attenborough’s direction. He’s always considered a director of epic movies but if you look at his films, you’ll see that they are actually at their worst when he’s trying to do the epic David Lean thing. A Bridge Too Far loses all focus in the big battle scenes and it’s impossible to keep your bearings. But in the small scenes, such as Sean Connery returning to confront Dirk Bogarde, it worked beautifully. In Magic, he does lovely little bits like the scene described above and the reunion meeting of Corky and Peg. But when he has a big scene to stage, he flubs it. This is most disastrous in the horror set-pieces. The first murder is particularly badly staged with cinematography so murky that you can hardly tell what’s happening and a would-be shock effect which is telegraphed well in advance. Attenborough doesn’t seem to have a feeling for this kind of horror suspense and he’s far too tasteful to rev up the gore. I suppose what he lacks is the quality of ruthlessness which a good horror director needs, the willingness to stick it to the audience. Mind you, in mitigation, Attenborough isn’t helped by his DP Victor J. Kemper whose work is ugly, flat and unimaginative. He doesn’t make anything of the various locations and the night-shoot work is often incoherent. Scene after scene looks like a cheap TV Movie and the overall film lacks the elegance which is required for sustained menace. Compare this to another low-key horror-thriller made in 1978 – John Carpenter’s Halloween - and you can see the vast difference in the level of visual style and, more basically, visual awareness.
There are good things in Magic. Hopkins, even miscast, is always worth watching and he’s well supported by a lovely, subtle Ann-Margret and a remarkably restrained Burgess Meredith. There’s also Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful music score which often supplies an edge of tension which would otherwise be lacking. But overall, it doesn’t work, bashing us over the head with a sledgehammer while wasting the possibilities of the subject matter through forgetting that a good magician always keeps something up his sleeve. When a film is as obvious as Magic, how can we believe in the trick?
Anchor Bay’s new two disc set of Magic is quite an impressive package although I’m not convinced that two discs were necessary. The space is presumably taken up by Anchor Bay’s useless sound remixes.
The quality of the 1.85:1 anamorphic image varies from very good to mediocre. There is an awful lot of murkiness throughout but the cinematography is so horrible at times that it’s hard to tell how much this is intentional. It’s also often very grainy and there are some artefacts in darker interior sequences. But the night exteriors are generally good and colours throughout are natural if somewhat muted.
Two of the three soundtracks are remixes in 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround which have all the sound elements slightly out of whack and never begin to sound remotely natural. The 2.0 ‘Stereo’ option is actually a two-channel presentation of the original mono track and is acceptable enough. But a one channel restored mono track would have been perfectly acceptable – it sounded fine on the Dark Sky region 1 disc.
The extras are all contained on the second disc. They are entertaining enough although the lack of any new material from Anthony Hopkins or Richard Attenborough is regrettable – particularly in the case of the latter since I’ve always really wondered why he agreed to make the film when it’s like nothing else in his filmography. The features are, with one exception, identical to those on the region 1 DVD. We get a 26 minute featurette called ‘Fats and Friends’ which takes us through a brief history of ventriloquism and supplies some background to the film; this is hosted by the personable Dennis Alwood who trained Hopkins for the film. There’s also an unintentionally amusing interview with Victor J. Kemper, a raft of TV spots and trailers, a make-up test for Ann-Margret, a photo gallery and two interviews. These are both with Anthony Hopkins. One is a radio interview, running around four minutes, and the other runs about six minutes and comes from Spanish television. Hopkins is very quiet and intense in both of these and manages to sound frank and open without giving very much away. The one new feature is a fifteen minute interview with William Goldman entitled ‘Screenwriting For Dummies’. It’s typically entertaining stuff in which Goldman is characteristically forthright about the film and various other matters. I’d have liked to hear more from him but even this brief interview is better than nothing.
Sadly, neither the film nor the extra features are subtitled. This is a major oversight on Anchor Bay’s part.
Magic strikes me as, at best, an interesting failure but it’s a film with a major cult following. Most fans of the movie will have the region 1 disc but this Anchor Bay release has sufficient merit to make it worth considering for those who haven’t picked it up yet.