Houdini Review

Misleading at least a generation of fans, the 1953 biographical film Houdini, about the life of the famous magician and escape artist, now comes closer to getting away with its habitual falsehoods due to the common notion that it's the Hollywood version of the truth. Cynical audiences have hopefully moved on from taking movies as gospel. The semi-savvy are now content to use Wikipedia for their questionable fact checking. Nonetheless, this is one of the glossiest of studio biopics in an era full of them, merely using Houdini's celebrity and a bare outline of his life to sell movie tickets. The film, the first feature pairing of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, does at least provide an excuse to show off their newlywed chemistry. Along with the nifty pacing, which reduces Houdini's entire professional life to about 106 minutes, the real-life couple keep this George Pal-produced effort from drowning in its own torture chamber of truth stretching.

So it goes with trying to capitalise on a legendary and popular figure by making a movie in an era when lives like his were nearly impossible to translate on screen. There's really only so much you can complain, though. After establishing that this is indeed - shock - not the complete and utterly true story of Harry Houdini, it's probably best to move on and figure out whether the movie itself is any good. For the nostalgic viewers, those who truly love movie stars and simple, nonthreatening films that won't challenge anyone, Houdini is close to a classic, but mainly for its old-fashioned safeness. It has virtually no subtext or hint of depth. The most notable and interesting detour is Houdini's dual obsessions of his mother and the supernatural. His fascination with Halloween is danced around, but consists of little more than throwaway mentions and cut-outs of jack-o-lanterns and witches on a stage curtain.

The joys that do exist within the picture are largely contained in the harmless and mechanical style of filmmaking. Director George Marshall, whose durable career lasted from making shorts as early as 1916 to directing episodes of The Odd Couple in 1972, was a pro. Probably his other best known films are the 1939 Jimmy Stewart-Marlene Dietrich western comedy Destry Rides Again and the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. You won't see anything showy or flashy in his movies, but he usually got the job done. Also adding a good deal of professionalism and experience are lauded cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and RKO vet Roy Webb, whose energetic score nicely underlines the action. I think because those key elements, and Philip Yordan's screenplay isn't bad aside from its blatant fictionalising, do mostly work, it allows the central performances of Curtis and Leigh to charm the viewer into putting aside the film's shortcomings in the truth department.

Just three years earlier, Tony Curtis was buried in a small role in the first Francis the Talking Mule comedy. Though Houdini wasn't his first starring part, it may well have been his first one of importance, and it's certainly become one of his more beloved roles. There doesn't appear to be a lot required in terms of degree of difficulty, but I'd argue that Curtis may actually be undervalued here and throughout his career. Not only does the actor lend a believability to the film by way of resilient enthusiasm, but he also establishes that all-important requirement of any great movie star part - likability. His version of Houdini starts off as a small time carnival performer and is soon humbled by factory work testing thousands of locks each day. His new wife barely humours Houdini's ambition. When fame and popularity do finally hit, Curtis continues playing him as the same guy who was too scared to tell his mother he'd gotten married. The charm in maintaining such a dubiously accurate portrayal can be seen purely as a gift to the audience. That charisma that Curtis shows keeps the viewer lightly entertained even on multiple viewings. If a film is going to play fast and loose with the truth, why not go all the way and paint the protagonist as a swell guy we all know and love. To pull that off, an actor with natural gifts for playing likable must be in the role and that's where Curtis shines here.

Any appreciation for Houdini the film must be limited to that warm and soothing ideal of movies as thoroughly entertaining diversions. Too often we perhaps lose sight of the joys found in watching unambitious fiction that neither manipulates nor oversteps its bounds. Though Houdini can't overcome its tenuous relationship with the truth, it does function quite well as benign Hollywood fluff. It hops around different genres, mixing comedy and drama with the thrills of Houdini's escapes, to further satisfy even the itchiest of viewers. This same exact formula could have resulted in a messy film lacking in focus, but it instead seems to know what it's doing, where it's going, and how to get there at all times. Some of those times it may do this a little too hastily, but I don't think anyone had in mind that they were making the definitive account of Houdini's life. Again, the audience always seems to be the concern and delivering an entertaining product the goal. Mostly, even well over fifty years later, this remains what the movie does. If it inspires people to learn more about Harry Houdini by reading a book on his life, that can't be entirely bad either.

The Disc

Paramount hasn't touched its back catalog for a couple of years now. Last year saw Criterion emerge as a shining light of digital salvation when a few films licensed from the studio, including Ace in the Hole and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, first appeared in excellent editions by the label. Now, a new licensing agreement has been revealed, allowing Legend Films to release several Paramount titles. Legend has previously been best known for their efforts in needlessly colorizing black and white films that were originally designed, conceived, shot, released, and loved in black and white. Their home entertainment karma is improving, if only incrementally.

Thankfully, Houdini was in colour from the get-go, having actually been filmed in Technicolor. The bad news is that Legend's R1 DVD is single-layered, the full frame transfer is interlaced (with relatively minor combing), and it's far from ideal. The image is soft throughout, but at times can look like this:

while at others it clears up like this:

There are obvious issues with the Technicolor print used, particularly with the red matrix. The result is a transfer that often has blotchy colours, sometimes looking like a filled-in colouring book where the lines weren't obeyed. Mild speckles of dirt are present, too, but not in abundance. I also noticed a bright blue flash of light at about the 20-minute mark. None of this is so distracting as to make the film unwatchable, far from it. Potential viewers and purchasers should know going in, though, that the transfer can be soft, strikingly inconsistent, and with disappointing colour. A scant few scenes, in my estimation, do look like something shot in the beautiful Technicolor film fans love, notably an early image of a bunch of balloons, but it's more common to see duller tones.

Only an English Dolby Digital mono track is included with this release. There's a persistent crackle that can be heard throughout the film. It's not the stuff of public domain incompetence, but it is more noticeable here than in films a decade or older released on DVD by other studios. Dialogue can still be heard just fine and at a suitable, consistent volume. The level of care taken by Legend seems to be consistently sketchy, leaving us with no subtitles at all. This is unacceptable, now over a decade into the format.

The theatrical trailer (2:16) is the disc's lone extra, and, would you believe, it's progressively transferred.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:17:38

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