A forgotten production from Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.
The Escape Artist is one of a quintet of Francis Ford Coppola-related titles currently hitting the shops from Studio Canal. The Conversation and The Outsiders have been given Blu-ray upgrades, whilst One From the Heart is getting a mere DVD downgrade from Buena Vista’s earlier two-disc release. Wim Wenders’ Hammett is also putting in an appearance and making its long-awaited UK DVD debut as is The Escape Artist, though arguably there’s less anticipation in this case. The film hasn’t seen a UK home video release since its 1986 VHS incarnation and as such is easily the least known of these new Studio Canal releases. As with Hammett Coppola didn’t direct, rather he served simply as executive producer, this being one of Zoetrope Studios’ pictures just prior to the massive flop of One From the Heart. In the director’s chair we instead find Caleb Deschanel, better known as a director of photography. At this point in his career he had lensed The Black Stallion and Being There amongst others and would go onto such Oscar-nominated work as The Right Stuff and The Passion of the Christ. The Escape Artist was his feature debut as director, one of only two. The other was the Aidan Quinn-starring Crusoe from 1989, though Deschanel has done the occasional television episode, including three for Twin Peaks.
Based on David Wagoner’s 1965 novel, The Escape Artist was adapted by Melissa Matheson (fresh from her work on E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) and Stephen Zito. It’s a tale told in flashback concerning young Danny Masters, son of Harry Masters who was an escapologist second only to Houdini himself (or so the voice-over informs us). Harry died years ago, leaving Danny parentless but also in possession of plenty of street smarts and an overt confidence. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, though these dreams are held up slightly when he comes into contact with the mayor’s son and, for reasons never fully explained, pickpockets his wallet. For the purposes of a 90-minute narrative the wallet turns out to be rather important and a key piece of evidence pointing towards the mayor’s corrupt office.
Danny is played by Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan and brother of Tatum. His character’s penchant for card tricks and pickpocketing brings to mind his sister’s Oscar-winning turn as a young con artist from Paper Moon. It’s tempting to see the connection as being an intentional one and though Griffin was somewhat older than Tatum for his lead role (seventeen years old as opposed to Tatum’s ten), he shares that curious blend of the looks of a child and the wits of years of experience. It’s a combination that’s also befitting of The Escape Artist itself, a film which seems unable to decide whether it’s a kids’ picture or something a little more complex. The world it depicts is both cartoon-like and cynical: Danny comes into contact with plenty of world weary characters but they’re entirely two-dimensional creations.
This lack of depth is disappointing not only because it prevents The Escape Artist from settling on a consistent tone, but also because it wastes the quite considerable cast. In the role of the mayor’s son we find the ever-watchable Raul Julia, playing his girlfriend is Teri Garr, and there are smaller roles for the likes of Joan Hackett, Desi Arnaz, M. Emmet Walsh and, in one of his final performances, Jackie Coogan. A young Elizabeth Daily also appears prior to becoming much better known for her voice work on The Rugrats and The Powerpuff Girls. Yet in each case there’s very little for them to do; with no actual character to grip onto they instead must rely on our associations with past (or future) roles. It’s strange to come across a film in which neither Julia or Garr can make much an impression, but that’s exactly what The Escape Artist is.
Whether this should lack of an impact should be attributed to Deschanel’s inexperience in the director’s chair is debatable. I also haven’t read the original novel so have no idea as to how many flaws have been inherited from the film’s source. Nevertheless The Escape Artist remains a disappointing work, buoyed only by the interest in seeing a long-forgotten Coppola movie and a rare instance of a genuine Zoetrope Studios production. It also has a truly wonderful score from Georges Delerue, but that remains the sole instance of genuine magic in this picture.
Reaching the UK DVD market almost six years to the day after its US disc incarnation, The Escape Artist still hasn’t found the time to amass any additional features. All we get is the film itself with a static menu and the option of either a German soundtrack or German subtitles. Despite this overall lack, the presentation is at least a decent one. The original aspect ratio is maintained (anamorphically enhanced) as is the original stereo soundtrack, with both being in mostly fine condition. Signs of damage and age are few with a couple of scenes appearing with a much heavier grain than others. Clarity is acceptable throughout, however, whilst colours and contrast levels appear as should be expected. The soundtrack, meanwhile, copes well with both dialogue and the Delerue score. In other words we’re not getting the lavish treatment of some of the other Studio Canal Coppola discs, but given the relative obscurity of the film, not to mention its decided lack of quality, we perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised. Indeed, if there are any genuine fans of The Escape Artist out there then no doubt they would have imported the US disc long ago.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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