Magic, Borrowed Yet Real
When it opened in New York 63 years ago today on the tail-end of the so-called “golden era” of 3D movie production and exhibition, Columbia Pictures’ The Mad Magician (1954) had a decent shot at success. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (February) and Phantom of the Rue Morgue (March) recently proved that there was some life in the horror genre yet from the much-ballyhooed, immersive format, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder would arrive two weeks later to provide some stylish sheen. The project went through some developmental bumps on its way to the screen. The American Film Institute Catalog listing notes: “According to a May 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, producer Bryan Foy was originally teamed with Edward Small to produce The Mad Magician in color for United Artists. A June 5, 1953 Los Angeles Times news item indicates that Anthony Quinn was under consideration for the role of ‘Gallico’ and that film star and amateur magician Chester Morris would serve as technical advisor.” But the sweet spot lie in the final elements that aligned behind it. “Foy, writer Crane Wilbur, actor Vincent Price and cinematographer Bert Glennon worked together on the highly successful and similarly themed 3D horror film House of Wax for Warner Bros. in 1953.” If what The Mad Magician’s audiences experienced didn’t reach the grisly Technicolor heights of terror from that earlier triumph, the combination of borrowed elements from the Waxworks and other previous chillers, combined with the keen directorial instincts of macabre master John Brahm and the matchless Price, nonetheless offered marvelously entertaining method to this turn-of-the-20th-century illusionist’s madness. From Wax itself came the premise of a wronged artist driven over the edge of sanity by mercenary business interests, in this case, an ingenious deviser of stage magic illusions being bilked out of his own career in the limelight by a predatory manager (Donald Randolph) and a particularly oily rival magician (John Emery). Wilbur and Brahm would also purloin elements from Brahm’s earlier thrillers The Lodger (Price renting a room in order to set up a secret identity in disguise…and prompting gossip from his curious landlords) and Hangover Square (disposal of a murder victim’s corpse in plain sight in a towering, celebratory town-square bonfire). Plus, there’s the matter of the severed head in a misplaced satchel, recalling visions of Night Must Fall’s quaintly disconnected yet secretly brutal serial killer, and the stripping of a disguise by a suspicious beauty (in this case, delicious femme fatale Eva Gabor) to reveal the face of a murderer. But when the buzzing saw blade starts whirring and the crematorium flames leap out at you, all thoughts of the derivative nature of the enterprise are dispelled by the profoundly committed charisma and time-honed skills of its star. “Price, perhaps more than any other actor I can think of, could simultaneously amuse you and impress you with a deliberately over-the-top performance, while miraculously taking the pejorative sting out of ‘ham.’ No wonder he's the icon he is today: there's no other real reason a movie like The Mad Magician would be of interest today, without him,” DVDTalk.com reviewer Paul Mavis wrote in 2012 after watching a 2D version of this fondly recalled movie. But it’s all illusion, correct? Movies in general, the “golden-era” 1952-1954 3D boom, water squirting/playing cards flying/woodchips spraying/enveloping flames, just illusions, right? The talents of Price, Brahm, the actors and crew that make The Mad Magician captivatingly fun and thrilling are real, just like Twilight Time’s spectacular hi-def Blu-ray.