Friday, October 9, 2015

MAGIC 1978

Richard Attenborough’s atmospherically tense adaptation of William Goldman’s 1976 bestseller, Magic, doesn’t seem to come up much in conversation these days; although when it does, it’s inevitably in reference to those nightmare-inducing, kindertrauma TV ads that ran at the time of its release. There’s scarcely an adult of a certain age who can’t be reduced to a quivering mass of jelly on hearing this poem recited (preferably in a shrill, nasal voice with a New Yawk accent):
I sit on his knee.
Presto chango,
and now he is me.

Hocus pocus
we take her to bed.
Magic is fun;
we’re dead.
Being 21-years-old at the time, I wasn’t among those frightened by the TV commercial, I only remember being so taken with the eerie effectiveness of the ad (even if you weren't watching the screen, that weird voice seriously sent chills up your spine), I could barely wait for the movie to open. 
A masterpiece of minimalism, the entire 30-second teaser-spot consisted of nothing more than a slow zoom into the face of an intensely demonic-looking ventriloquist’s dummy whose dead eyes stared maniacally into the camera as it recited the above poem in a high-pitched, not entirely human-sounding voice. Without showing a single frame of footage from the film, this unsettling confluence of dramatic lighting, ominous music, and the built-in necromantic creep-out of being confronted by an animate inanimate object, incited the outcry from concerned parents of traumatized tots across the nation, to have the ads taken off the air.
I’d read Magic sometime in college when it was still on the bestseller list, but only because I’d read in the trades that producer Joseph E. Levine (Harlow, The Carpetbaggers) had secured the film rights for the tidy sum of $1 million, enlisting Goldman to adapt his novel to the screen. What excited me was the early talk citing Roman Polanski as director and Robert De Niro starring as the magician/ventriloquist with the dark secret. After Polanski bailed, Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Norman Jewison were each attached to the project at various times, with actors as disparate as Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, Gene Wilder, and Al Pacino considered for the lead.

Ultimately, directing chores went to British actor/director Richard Attenborough (Séance on a Wet Afternoon), with the lead going to Welsh actor, Anthony Hopkins. After several years in the business, Hopkins was suddenly very hot stateside, appearing in several major films in rapid succession: Audrey Rose (1977), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and International Velvet (1978).
William Goldman has always maintained Magic’s central female character, high-school dreamgirl Peggy Ann Snow, was inspired by and written with Ann-Margret in mind. So when it came time to cast the film, I’m not sure if any other actresses were considered, but it didn’t hurt Magic’s boxoffice chances any that the 60s ingénue was experiencing a career resurgence at the time, thanks to her Oscar nominations for Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Tommy (1975). With Burgess Meredith (The Day of the Locust) on board as the Swifty Lazar-like talent agent (a role once slated for Laurence Olivier), and $7 million allocated for the budget, advance buzz on Magic augured a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with an A-list pedigree.
Anthony Hopkins as Charles "Corky" Withers 
Ann-Margret as Peggy Ann Snow-Wayne
Burgess Meredith as Ben Greene
Ed Lauter as Ronnie "Duke" Wayne
That 20th Century Fox was able to successfully market Magic on the strength of a single, non-disclosive graphic, is only in part attributable to the popularity of Goldman’s bestseller. The other contributing factor was audiences already knew what to expect simply because the story involved a ventriloquist. Magic’s boon and bane has always been the fact that any thriller with a ventriloquist at its center is bound to utilize one of two fairly standard and overused plot possibilities: 1) The deranged ventriloquist who schizophrenically imagines his dummy to be real (The Great Gabbo, Dead of Night); 2) The supernatural take on the same theme, in which case the dummy indeed proves to be alive (Devil Doll, The Twilight Zone episodes, “The Dummy” & “Caesar & Me”). 
Magic falls into the former category. 

Corky Withers (Hopkins), a failed, personality-minus magician, finds success when he adds a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy named Fats to his act. An act in which the outspoken, self-assured Fats, who resembles a grotesque caricature of Corky, hurls comically lewd, X-rated invectives at the audience while his mild-mannered human half engages in minor feats of legerdemain.
When savvy theatrical agent Ben Green (nicknamed “The Postman” because he always delivers) lands Corky an opportunity to crack the big time, the sheepish showman balks at a TV network’s request for a physical exam and hightails it out of New York. He finds refuge and an indelible part of his past when he checks into a rundown Catskills lake resort belonging to unrequited high school crush, former-cheerleader Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), now a sad-eyed hotelier unhappily married to one-time high-school sports hero, “Duke” Wayne (Lauter).
15 years has served to narrow the gulf once dividing Corky and Peggy, mutual discontent now inflaming a mutual attraction brokered on the unexpressed hope of rescue and reclamation.
But for Corky’s long-nurtured, once-thought- impossible dream to come true, he has to overcome a few obstacles. Peggy’s husband isn’t a problem, for although he still loves her, Peggy has grown tired of his drinking, philandering, and verbal abuse. And Corky’s agent, nosy and over-protective though he may be, really only wants what’s best for Corky. Doesn’t he?  
No, there is really only one obstacle standing in Corky’s way...but it’s a big one.
Fats won’t like it.
Yes, Corky is mad as a hatter. And his schizophrenia has taken the form of seeing Fats as a separate, increasingly malevolent entity out to control his life and force him to do very bad things.
"You can't believe how much people want to believe in magic."

Ventriloquist dummies are so inherently creepy I’m certain a fairly terrifying horror film could be made simply by training a camera on a roomful of them for 90 minutes. If you doubt it, try doing a Google Images search of “ventriloquist dummies” sometime. You’ll be sleeping with the lights on for a week. 
That’s why, given Magic’s overall impressiveness as a taut psychological thriller wrapped in a character study; it’s so frustrating Attenborough & Co. weren’t better able to capture that unsettling aspect of magic and ventriloquy which seems to intentionally flirt with the bizarre and grotesque. Between the dark demons fueling Corky’s madness (the novel hints at Corky being a serial killer) and the mysteries shrouded in the truth/illusion world of magic, the story offers ample opportunities. But the filmmakers are content to rely on Fats’ spectacularly chilling puppet design to do all the heavy lifting, horror-wise.
In a way, Magic, by virtue of being yet another reworking of the predictable “ventriloquist with a split-personality” plot device, is forced to wring suspense out of audience concern over whether it will add anything new to the over-familiar mix. While Goldman’s script dutifully takes us through updates of dominant dummy vs. overpowered ventriloquist sequences we’ve seen countless times before; suspense is generated by a wishful certainty on our part that a cast this stellar and production values this first-rate cannot possibly yield a retread of material Michael Redgrave and his dummy, Hugo, fairly nailed back in 1945.
Yet that’s precisely what Magic does. I saw Magic when it opened in 1978, and when I first saw it, I tied myself in knots waiting for it to live up to those TV ads (it didn’t), and wondering how Goldman was going to handle the novel’s “big reveal” (It's jettisoned. The book is told from Fat’s perspective, so we don’t even find out until near the end that what we thought was a two-person narrative is actually a memoir). My expectation of what I hoped the film to be clouded me to what it was.
Only after returning to see Magic again was I able to appreciate how cinematically William Goldman adapted his novel. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s an engrossing -albeit familiar- story very well told and exceptionally well-acted. The Catskills setting has a chilly foreboding about it that is significantly enhanced by Jerry Goldman’s (Coma, The Omen) ingeniously spooky score, and the character conflicts are skillfully buttressed by several nicely-realized suspense set-pieces.
"Kid, I have lived through Tallulah Bankhead and the death of vaudeville. I don't scare easy."
After a string of eccentric roles, it was nice to see Burgess Meredith playing a regular person again

Anthony Hopkins gives a remarkable performance in Magic, virtually flawless in its versatility and depth. He brings a modulated authenticity to a character we have to simultaneously dread and sympathize with. His character runs the emotional gamut from cripplingly shy to theatrically assured; from touchingly vulnerable to deviously maniacal. He has a full-tilt mental breakdown scene that could easily have veered into camp or ridiculousness, that instead becomes an object lesson in how to ground extreme behavior in something real (Faye Dunaway would have done well to take notes before doing Mommie Dearest).
All that being said, Hopkins is terribly miscast. Instead of casting for Corky’s stage persona and wresting a tortured performance out of a charming showman whose stage charisma blossoms in the presence of his wooden alter ego, Attenborough seems to have cast for Corky the mental case. Hopkins is great as the haunted, hunted Corky, but I don't buy him for a minute as a successful stage performer. As Pauline Kael perceptively wrote, “Hopkins has no light or happy range and doesn’t show a capacity for joy.” Comics are often said to be exceedingly dark personalities offstage, but you never could guess it from watching their act. I think Magic would have been far more chilling were there a clearer sense of Corky having a deceptively light side to mask the dark.
One of the very few scenes in Magic to feature Hopkins smiling
When looking back and taking the entire film in, for me Magic's most valuable player is Ann-Margret. The role of Peggy Ann Snow may have been written expressly for the talented actress, but Goldman doesn't exactly give her a lot to work with. What she does with it is a thing of beauty.
In the manner of many male writers who betray with each female character they write, just how little they know about women; Goldman's way of letting us in on Corky's deep feelings for Peggy is to have him reference her physical beauty, ad nauseam. Her breasts, specifically. 
And true to the adolescent roots of Corky's/Goldman's infatuation, the breathtakingly lovely Peggy doesn't think she's beautiful at all and clings to male reassurance. Yeah, that happens a lot.

To make matters worse, an inordinate amount of Peggy's dialog is relegated to "girl-isms" like "Coffee's on!', "Do you want the asparagus tips or french cut green beans?" By the time she made reference to a bubble bath, I thought it would turn out that Peggy Ann Snow never existed at all, and that she was just another one of Corky's delusions. 
In spite of these hurdles, Ann-Margret gives a movingly sensitive performance that transcends the inanity of her dialog. She turns a boy's fantasy into a living-breathing woman, centering the genre pyrotechnics with an earthy naturalism and melancholy sadness.

I wonder if young people seeing Magic today find the idea of a nationally-famous ventriloquist to be more far-fetched (and terrifying) than a wooden figure come to life? I grew up at a time when ventriloquist acts like Shari Lewis, Willie Tyler, Wayland Flowers, and Paul Winchell were staples of TV variety shows. As were borscht-belt comics with Corky Withers-type names like Shecky Green, Sandy Baron, and Morty Gunty. (I even had a ventriloquist's dummy as a child. I named him Eddie Arnstein because he looked like a cross between Eddie Cantor and Omar Sharif in Funny Girl.)
If magic is problematic on television because you can't misdirect the camera; ventriloquism in the movies always opens the question of post-dubbing.  Much was made at the time of Hopkins learning ventriloquism and doing the voice of Fats. Some sources have since cited Magic's ventriloquist consultant  Dennis Alwood as not only manipulating Fats, but serving as his voice as well.

I bring this up because I think my familiarity with this almost vaudevillian style of show biz act is what makes Magic's nightclub scenes so cringe-worthy for me. William Goldman is a talented writer but he's not a gag-writer. Anthony Hopkins is a great actor, but he has absolutely no comedy timing. This collision of limitations is fine when Corky is supposed to be awful, but when he's supposed to have struck paydirt with Fats, I found myself wishing Goldman had hired a genuine comedy writer to do these scenes. And the fact that the act is so lousy is only exacerbated by constantly having characters say (not laugh, but say aloud) "Now that's' funny!"

I do have to say that Fats did make me laugh, but only once. When introduced to the toupee-wearing TV executive Mr. Todson (David Ogden Stiers), Fats slips and accidentally-on-purpose calls him "Mr. Wigston." I'm laughing just thinking about it.

The set-pieces I made reference to earlier comprise my favorite Magic moments. The collaborative efforts of the actors; director Attenborough; cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (XanaduEyes of Laura Mars); editor John Bloom (Closer); and composer Jerry Goldmsith; they represent Magic at the top of its game.
Amateur Night Breakdown
Meeting of the Minds
"Make Fats shut up for five minutes."
The Thing in the Lake
If 1978 audiences were left disappointed by Magic not living up to the horror suggested by the commercials (among the audience I saw it with, I remember the degree of consternation born of the film ending with Ann-Margret's near-unintelligible closing line: [Delivered in a voice imitative of Fats] - "You may not get this oppor-fuckin-tunity tomorrow!”); audiences since then have come to appreciate Magic as an entertainingly engrossing, mature thriller effectively employing the devices of the genre while being a moving parable about using illusions to mask our vulnerability and fear of rejection.

Actor Jerry Houser, who made his film debut in The Summer of '42 (1971), plays the cab driver in Magic.

The television spot that launched a thousand nightmares
(reportedly pulled from NYC TV stations after only one broadcast)

Serving as proof that the longstanding narrative tradition of associating ventriloquism with personality displacement has yet to hit dry dock, take a look at Kevin Spacey in an excellent 2012 short film titled, The Ventriloquist.

Jay Johnson, who played ventriloquist Chuck Campbell on the 70s sitcom, Soap, read for the role of Corky in Magic when Norman Jewison was set to direct. And while I have no idea how serious a contender he was, I must confess I find Johnson to better conform to my minds-eye image of Magic's schizophrenic protagonist. Anthony Hopkins, although remarkable in the role, comes across as more than a little unhinged from the start. Johnson, on the other hand, possesses that faint quality of sadness and anger present in so many comics, shrouded by a cheery, superannuated boyishness capable of conveying outward charm masking all manner of internal conflict. I'm doubtful Johnson would have matched Hopkins' dramatic virtuosity, but I'm certain his stage act would have been a damn sight more entertaining.
Here's a clip of Johnson from his 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway show, The Two and Only.

I actually happen to be friends with a magician, one who actually knows Peggy Ann Snow! Emmy-nominated illusionist Larry Wilson was Ann-Margret's opening act for a time. Credentials don't get much better than that!  Visit Spellbinders International Festival of Magic 

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Funnily enough, I rewatched this again last weekend. It thrilled and chilled me when I watched it at a ridiculously young age, but it felt really lacking this time around.

    I do however appreciate that it is still a film that neatly avoids the camp tone it could have easily adopted, to create something genuinely unnerving and really quite tragic. It's a tone that is helped immeasurably by Richard Attenborough, who has an acute sense of the tension required within the film and ratchets it up slowly and surely in several key scenes. As I said in a review for another site this is most notable in the scene where Meredith challenges Corky to keep Fats silent for five minutes - It's an exercise we know is doomed to fail from the start, but Corky attempts it nonetheless. Attenborough pulls out several satisfying camera tricks here; switching the focus from Corky to Ben, and employing one single, slow rotating shot around Corky and Fats until the are both almost in profile with each other, signifying that they are two halves of one person. Beaten, Corky finally grabs Fats and delivers his manic patter at full volume, with Attenborough delivering a tight close-up to coincide with Fats screaming “Here’s FATS!”

    I know what you mean about Hopkins. He's brilliant at the shy, unhinged, beaten by life stuff and I totally buy that Fats is his only outlet and allows him stardom, but there isn't the zest you expect in a critically and commercially successful show. I'm not really convinced by him essentially 'doing a Connery' and not attempting an accent beyond his own Welsh burr.

    1. Hi Mark
      What a coincidence that you had watched this recently! I can't imagine how it must have struck you as a child, but the very elements you mentioned (unsettling, tension) hold up a great deal better than any horror or shock effects.
      That particular scene you note is one of my favorites. Like the card game scene, it is like the best of Hitchcock in its ability to play with time and use cutting, and camera angles to create an almost unbearable suspense.
      Whatever quality Attenborough (or whomever) brought to that sequence and the ones i noted above, I wish it could have been sustained throught. They have a dynamite asset in that creepy-looking dummy, and an excellent cast. But it feels like a movie a couple of story meetings shy of being all it could be. Those nightclub scenes really could have used some work, I think.
      The casting of Anthony Hopkins makes me think of what is sometimes possible when you don't cast for the "dark" side of a schizophrenic character. Comic book fans always want a big, hulking actor to be cast as Batman; but to this day my favorite Batman is the hotly-contested Michael keaton, who's nobody's idea of an action hero, but gave Bruce Wayne some dimension.
      Hopkins, as good as he is, is creepy from the start. You wonder what Ann-margret's character sees in him beyond a twitchy guy with jumpy eyes.

    2. Hey Ken has there been any talks about doing a remake of the 1978 flick!

    3. Hi John
      Strangely (since Hollywood is really in full-throttle remake mania lately) I've never heard of talk about doing a remake. And though I don't tend to like them, this is one film film that could stand to be remade, I think.
      I think Hollywood logic goes that one remakes a success, not a failure; but storytelling logic seems to suggest that the filmmakers should try their hand at films that dropped the ball, not the ones that hit homeruns.

  2. I don't know if you're interested but Jay Johnson did take a crack at a Magic-like story in an episode of Mrs Columbo called A Riddle For Puppets. It's currently available on youtube and as an extra on the third season set of Columbo. It's not especially good but I'm always a sucker for evil dummy stories and it sounds like you might be as well.

    1. What a find! I see that it aired in 1979, so it's practically like Johnson's consolation prize for losing the role in "Magic". I agree with you it's not very good (has all the earmarks of fast, TV direction), but seeing him confirms what I always imagined...that Johnson has a suitable creepy undercurrent that perhaps a gifted director could have made use of.
      As I say, I can't imagining anyone surpassing Hopkins as he descends into madness, but this was a treat to watch. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I do indeed enjoy a good evil dummy story (or Talkie Tina, as the case may be).

  3. Dear Ken: Hi!

    I haven't actually seen "Magic"--it's not the type of story I generally enjoy (although I have seen the two earlier genre examples you list, "Great Gabbo" and "Dead of Night"). But. . .WOW! Do I remember that TV spot!

    I recall it was a Sunday evening. I was 13 years old, and I was watching TV by myself in the rear room of our house. When that commercial came on, I think I ran out of the room--it scared the s**t out of me!

    Even though I haven't seen the film, though, I enjoyed your essay as always. It's fun to keep learning about the movies that are meaningful to you!

    1. Hi David
      The number of people I know who have actually seen this film is infinitesimal compared to those who steered clear of it due to being freaked out by that commercial.
      Your description of seeing "Magic"'s commercial for the first time is similar to when I was ten years old and TV ads ran for Audrey hepburn's "Wait Until Dark"...Yikes! Nightmares for days.

      I hope the ad agency or publicity dept person who created it won some kind of award. I've never known such a phenomenon.

      As it turned out, Magic came out a week or two after "Halloween" was released, so the older cast and lack of serious bloody mayhem kept a lot of people away. Movies that fall in between genres always have a tough go of it. The audience to whom Ann-Margret's name meant anything, were not likely to go for mad ventriloquist movie. The younger set lured by the ad, didn't appreciate that the film was more a psychological thriller than a horror movie.
      Thanks for sharing your kindertrauma tale. I've heard from two other readers who labeled themselves "impressionable" and had a reaction similar to yours.

  4. Academic question: has any movie/tv show ever featured a BENIGN ventriloquist's dummy?

    I had a mad crush on Anthony Hopkins at the time of this movie's release (Hopkins being one of Deb's many secret husbands through the years) and remember being so disappointed with it. I was expecting more...I guess "depth" would be the word I'm looking for. It seemed obvious from the start that Hopkins's character was mad, and Ann-Margaret seemed washed-out and underutilized. However, I haven't seen it since 1978, so perhaps I should watch it again this Halloween and see if I need to revise my opinion.

    Your "spoiler alert" at the beginning of the essay brings up another academic question: is there ever a point in movies or literature where we say "this has been around long enough, everyone should know that [fill in blank] happens"? Or do we use spoiler alerts to keep cinematic (and literary) twists fresh. For instance, I would hate to spoil "Vertigo" for anyone and would always use a spoiler alert if I was going to discuss it, but a few years ago, I read a comment where someone was castigated for "revealing" that Jane marries Mr. Rochester at the end of JANE EYRE! That was a bit baffling!

    1. You must be clairvoyant! Or we're sharing a single soul like Corky And Fats. I just came here to delete my "spoiler alert" because i re-read my post and found I really didn't give anything away the back of the DVD doesn't.
      Wonderful question, however. Everyone who writes about film has a different take. Mine tends to fall in the realm of context: If I'm writing a review of a movie (which I don't really like to do) - I assume the reader hasn't seen it , even if it's an old movie. But f I'm writing a critical essay, I feel it is designed for those familiar with the film. My only deviation is when a movie is somewhat obscure and I'm hoping to bring attention to it. Then, I still write in detail, but I give the spoiler alert.

      Honestly, what is the cut-off point? A fellow blogger told me that she lost a lot of followers after she wrote about how a musical number in Golddiggers of 1935 ends. Would someone be mad if they found out Dorothy goes back to Kansas (oops!) or that Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett? And we all know Miss Karenina winds up under a train, don't we? As you say, baffling .

      Well, Back to "magic". I had a crush on Hopkins too when he played the gay son in "The Lion in Winter", but after that he kind of remained in the creep zone. Your reaction to the film echoes what a lot of people thought about it. Most admired the screenplay and performances, but the ingredients (so many talented people) promised something more substantial than what was delivered.

      And no, I don't think there has ever been a film about a benign ventriloquist's dummy. Even in those tame Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell movies, the dummy has to be a troublemaker or wise-guy. that's his only purpose. That obviousness of setup is what always made me assume "Magic" had something different up its sleeve. As it was, it was merely a better-made variation on the same old stuff.

  5. I had just turned 12 when this movie came out and over the years I have often wondered why I was so fascinated by it and wanted so badly to see it (I still haven't). There was nothing particular about it that appealed to me (grease, close encounters & three's company were more to my 11 year-old tastes) but now I realize that I must have seen the trailer!!! Love reading your blogs Ken and for helping to fill in the pieces of my life (-:

    1. Such a nice thing to say! And thanks for giving me some perspective of what were of pop cultural interest to those most likely to have been traumatized by that commercial. That mini-list you supply reaffirms my memory of "Magic" as being targeted to an older market.

  6. I saw this second-run on campus around the time it came out and (maybe) on cable a year or so after that. I remember liking it at the time, but right now, the only impressions of the movie that come to mind are "gray" and "damp."

    Hopkins was an unknown quantity to me at the time (and, of course, Hannibal Lechter was years away) so I guess I bought him as the character then, though, like Nicholson in The Shining, it feels like less a descent into madness than a couple steps down. Gene Wilder would've been interesting, but I can't picture anyone else from that list pulling it off.

    I don't remember the book, though I read pretty much all of his novels when I thought I was a William Goldman fan, based largely on his interview in "The Craft of the Screenwriter," but got a little tired. I don't think I ever made it through "Boys and Girls Together." (And, after all, it turned out I was really a George Roy Hill fan.)

    A final note: Ed Lauter's good in anything.

    1. Hi MDG
      Let's hear it for the shout out to the late Ed lauter! Like so many feel about character actor Jack Carson, Lauter gave so many consitantlysold performances that he was easy to overlook and underappreciate.
      Like what Ann-Margret was able to do with her stock, male adolescent fantasy role, Lauter makes the brutish character of Duke come across as movingly self-disappointed as Corky and Peggy.

      Goldman's an interesting case to me. He always struck me as a good writer but never a surprising one. He reminds me of those guys who taught screenwriting when i was in film school...everything was about finding the "formula" for storytelling. The goal being to give audiences what they anticipate, never to shake them up.

      By the way, I liked your observation: "It feels like less a descent into madness than a couple steps down."

  7. Argyle here. I’m pretty sure I saw this around release time, maybe “second-run on campus” as MDG mentioned. I’m sure I was scared/creeped-out but don’t really have any concrete recollections. For me it sort of ends up in that “Sleuth”/“Deathtrap” fog. Classy actors, set-bound, English accents, but scary! (And I don’t mean that to sound so bitter.) Like the TV ad which I’m not sure I ever saw, that print ad was very well designed, which says something. After reading your essay, I went down the Richard Attenborough rabbit hole which I would typically avoid (“Ghandi”) because I have liked him as an actor (“Brighton Rock”). That lead me back to re-read your essay on “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” which I still haven’t seen and am desperate now to see. Then I had to check to see if he was in “The Entertainer” with Laurence Olivier which I really love because the photography is so bright and the story’s so grim. He isn’t, but Albert Finney is which is funny because it was all reminding me of “Night Must Fall” from 1964 with AF. I definitely remember seeing that on TV when I was pretty young and loving it. It’s incredibly grey and damp and he has been up to something really grisly and much is made of a black leather hat box and a wooden glove form if I remember correctly. To a kid it felt really twisted and just the tone of it was mesmerizing. It’s something I have always wanted to see again. And looking it up I find it was directed by Karel Reisz which is pretty good. I’ve always linked Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, similar ages, backgrounds and kind of exceptional, quiet careers. I really love AH in “Remains of the Day.” Again, more damp and moodiness. As always, thank you Ken!

    1. Hello Argyle!
      I think perhaps the atmosphere of "Magic" (damp and moody) lingers longer than the details of the plot. It's one of the things about the film that has always stayed with me.
      Attenborough is so good in "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" I hope you get a chance to see it sometime. Me, I've always had a hankering to see the Albert Finney "Night Must Fall" (I love the Robert Montgomery/Rosalind Russell version) and I'm too cheap to rent the YouTube streamer.
      Ironically, just as you don't have a clear memory of "magic", I saw Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day" and remember so very little about it. Except maybe his character reminds me of the downstairs guy on "Downton Abbey."
      Also, I've never seen "Brighton Rock" before (nor heard of it), but according to the DVD extras on "Magic" one way to get on Attenborough's good side was to mention to him you saw it. Apparently he was very proud of it.
      Thanks Argyle. Always enjoy hearing in which ways our movie paths cross!

  8. Hi Ken,

    Geez I get busy for a month, take a peek in and you've become a posting machine!!! It's going to take me some time to go through the four recaps I missed. I'm not complaining in the least, I'm impressed most of all.

    So off to the races with the first. I also remember those deeply freaky ads which actually kept me from seeing its first time around. I think it was one of the first things I rented on VHS though because of Ann-Margret's inclusion in the cast.

    I wasn't overly thrilled with it then, though since its been years I should give it a re-watch, because of several of the things you mentioned. The biggest is Anthony Hopkins unsuitability in the lead.

    It seems wrong to put it that way since he gives his customarily exquisitely observed performance but as you said there is no lightness in his onscreen persona. In interviews he is often warm and humorous but that's not the same thing, there is always an intensity in the way he speaks and his body language. It seems strange that the filmmakers couldn't see it but it's a major handicap of the picture.

    The other thing is that the commercial set the bar too high. Something that deeply disturbing due to both its simplicity and brevity would be a hard expectation for even Hitchcock or Michael Powell to meet.

    It's been too long for me to have a vivid memory of Ann-Margret's work other than to remember that she was unsurprisingly very good in the film but I really should give it another view if only for her work.

    Oh and I second Argyle's suggestion of Brighton Rock. Attenborough was justly proud of it, the film is a good one and his performance excellent. It was a big breakthrough for him taking him from respected supporting player to the top of the British acting world and beyond.

    1. Hi Joel!
      It's been a while! I think you're so right about the level of expectation set by those creepy ads. (I felt similarly about that great, blood-pouring-from-the-elevator-doors trailer for "The Shining"...terrific movie, but nothing equaled what my imagination made of that surreal image).
      Your feelings about "Magic" echo so many others. Given the pedigree and caliber or talent assembled for the film, there was just such a feeling of "meh" about the final results.
      As for the casting of Hopkins, considering the "light" nature of the various actors initially considered for the project, it seems like somewhere along the line they lost track of trying to cast for the entire character of Corky, and only sought to cast for his "dark" side.
      Always amazing to me how these kinds of considerations seem so fundamental yet, filmmakers can sabotage their own (rather costly) efforts by failing to consider them.
      And thanks for another recommendation for "Brighton Rock" - certainly sounds like a winner.
      Good to hear from you again, Joel. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. I ended up here by accident but am not surprised to read of the trauma inflicted by the "Magic" trailer that ran in the late '70s. I was three years old and was seeing a movie with my parents when the trailer aired in theaters. My mother said I screamed at the top of my lungs and we had to leave the theater because I was so upset. Every time we went to the movies after, I remember asking if the "Magic" commercial would be shown. I also distinctly remember the creepy poster featuring the upper half of Fat's face in the theater lobby. (I think this was from a second-run of the film. Did films make the theater circuit more than once in the '70s?) My timeline is a bit jagged. Anyhow, I remained haunted by Fats' giant ugly head and cawing voice as a kid and well into my teenage years, when I finally forced myself to watch "Magic" on VHS. Bad idea. To this day, as a 42-year-old man, I STILL have Fats nightmares, averaging about one per year. Crazy! Glad to see I'm not alone. I really enjoyed your well-written blog piece on this topic.

    1. Hi Kyle
      I'm sorry to say that I got the best laugh out of your vividly descriptive account of a moment of childhood psychological trauma. But I only laughed out of being able to relate (having been traumatized beyond reason by the premiere of"Psycho" on TV when I was small); and out of jealousy.
      I haven't read this piece in a while, but I think I relate how I was really too old to find the MAGIC commercial frightening. But I am somewhat jealous of those able to be so impacted by something on film. You lose it a bit as you age, and I miss that.
      Movies did make the theater circuit more than once in the 70s, so no doubt you correctly recall encountering that poster after the initial trailer.

      I certainly feel for you 3-year-old self, and can only imagine what your young mind made of that horrific-looking doll. And the fact that it remained with you for years (even to this day) honestly is the best testament for two things about film: 1) What really scares people can be something deceptively simple and small, 2) Film has power. It never has been as benign a medium as its pop entertainment status would lead us to believe.
      Got a huge kick out of your contribution here (no, you are not alone) and I'm glad you landed here by mistake and took the time to both read and comment. Thank you for your compliment, and I honestly wish you a future of no more annual Fats nightmares.